The Background of Twitter Summons
A complaint has been submitted to Anurag Thakur, Chairman of Parliament’s Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Information Technology, alleging an anti-rightwing bias on the social media platform Twitter. The Committee was learnt to have written to Twitter on February 1, asking that “representatives of Twitter” attend a hearing of the Committee.
On February 5, Thakur tweeted that the Committee would meet on February 11 to hear the views of representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Twitter on ‘Safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms’. On February 7, Twitter sources said, the Committee sent a second letter, requesting that “the CEO or at least the next senior most functionary in the hierarchy” attend the meeting.
On February 9, Twitter responded that the company’s CEO would not be able to attend the meeting because of the short notice given to him, but that the company was open to finding a more suitable date. This led to outrage in the BJP and the party’s supporters online. Thakur tweeted that the Committee “takes very serious note of this”, and would “take appropriate action on 11th February”.
On Monday, the Committee declined to meet officials from Twitter India, and unanimously decided to instead call the CEO Jack Dorsey and his top executives for a hearing on February 25. The panel also resolved to summon officials from other social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp over the issue.
Rules, Questions of the Summons
Rule 269(1) under Chapter XXVI (Parliamentary Committees) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha states: “A witness may be summoned by an order signed by the Secretary-General and shall produce such documents as are required for the use of a Committee.”
Rule 270 states: “A Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records: Provided that if any question arises whether the evidence of a person or the production of a document is relevant for the purposes of the Committee, the question shall be referred to the Speaker whose decision shall be final: Provided further that Government may decline to produce a document on the ground that its disclosure would be prejudicial to the safety or interest of the State.”
While a Committee of India’s Parliament has the right to send for executives of a company that operates in India, answers to several questions regarding the length of the notice given to Twitter, and the insistence on a personal appearance by Dorsey remain unclear. Also, Parliament is not scheduled to meet again after Wednesday, and the current Lok Sabha will survive only until the end of the elections. The Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology will be reconstituted after the constitution of the next Lok Sabha following the declaration of the election results. In the circumstances, what the current proceedings can realistically achieve is not immediately apparent.
The US experience
The current allegations of anti-rightwing bias against Twitter are similar to accusations that the company has faced in the United States earlier. On September 5, 2018, Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg answered questions from lawmakers on election interference, political bias, how they were protecting their platforms from abuse, and related topics. Later that day, Dorsey appeared alone before members of a Committee of the House of Representatives.
Conservative leaders in the US had been complaining for months about Twitter’s content moderation targeting rightwing voices. President Donald Trump has repeatedly alleged that tech companies censor conservatives. In 2016, Facebook faced criticism after a former employee alleged that human moderation suppressed conservative issues on the platform’s Trending Topics, and injected selected stories into the section. At a Senate hearing, the senior Republican leader Ted Cruz grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for shutting down certain pages.
What Dorsey said
In his testimony, Dorsey presented numbers comparing tweets by Republican and Democratic Congresspersons, which showed that between mid-July and mid-August 2019, Democrats had more followers per account and more active followers, which led to more impressions and views than Republicans. Still, there was no difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat and a tweet by a Republican was viewed, Dorsey said.
“Our quality filtering and ranking algorithm does not result in tweets by Democrats or tweets by Republicans being viewed any differently. Their performance is the same because the Twitter platform itself does not take sides.”
His testimony, however, failed to convince Republican lawmakers, who appeared keen to consolidate their base around the issue of bias. Dorsey has been chastised by Republicans for supporting liberal ideologies on Twitter.
Took long appearing
In late 2017, Congressional Committee members invited the Twitter CEO to testify on the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The company sent its acting general counsel instead. Facebook and Google, too, sent their lawyers.
At the hearing, one Senator told the lawyers: “I’m disappointed that you’re here, and not your CEOs. It’s fine to send general counsel, but I think if you could take a message back from this Committee, if we go through this exercise again, we would appreciate seeing the top people who are actually making the decisions.”
Days later, senior Republican leader Mitch McConnell expressed disappointment that the top executives of the companies did not attend the hearing.
In January 2018, Facebook, Google, and Twitter were again called before a Senate Committee. The companies said they would send their heads of public policy instead of their senior executives. Facebook and Google responded to a set of questions sent by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but Twitter missed the deadline to respond, according to reports in the American media.
In mid-March 2018, Senators from both parties were calling for CEOs to testify, with new focus on data privacy, after news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Federal Election Commission sent letters to Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Alphabet CEO Larry Page to testify in June 2018. The Commission recalled that it had sent letters to the executives the previous November as well.
In late March 2018, finally, Zuckerberg agreed to testify. On April 11, he appeared before Congress for two days of hearings, with much focus on data protection and privacy. In May, Dorsey met US lawmakers who urged him to testify.
On July 13, media reported that Facebook, Twitter, and Google would testify before the House the following week. Still, policy heads agreed to show up, not the CEOs. At last, on August 29, it was reported that Sandberg and Dorsey would testify the next week. However, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Page declined to appear. Google was represented by an empty chair at September hearing.
Pichai had independent meetings with Capitol Hill lawmakers in October, and finally testified before Congress in December.
Before Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Dorsey, and Pichai, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Yahoo’s then-CEO Jerry Yang, and Apple CEO Tim Cook had testified before Congress in 1998, 2007, and 2013 respectively.