BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has accused the Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, of violating Committee rules when he wrote to Facebook asking it to appear before the committee.
Dubey, a member of the panel, has argued that Tharoor did not follow the rule that an order signed by the Secretary-General of Lok Sabha is required to summon a witness. Tharoor has rejected as “extraordinary” the idea that the panel should not take up a matter of “such great public interest” —allegations in The Wall Street Journal that Facebook’s top public policy executive in India had opposed applying hate-speech rules to BJP politicians because it could damage the company’s business prospects in India. Read in Tamil
What is the Committee Tharoor heads?
Parliamentary Committees are considered an extension of Parliament and do a good deal of legislative business as both Houses of Parliament have limited time. Standing Committees, whose tenure is continuous throughout the tenure of the House, are appointed or elected by the House or nominated by the Lok Sabha Speaker or Rajya Sabha Chairman. They work under the direction of the presiding officers. There are 24 department/ministry-related Standing Committees of which 16 are serviced by Lok Sabha and eight by Rajya Sabha.
The IT Committee chaired by Tharoor has 20 more MPs from Lok Sabha and nine from Rajya Sabha. The ruling BJP has a majority representation in most of the committees. The 30-member IT panel has 15 MPs from BJP, four from Congress including Tharoor, two each from Trinamool Congress and YSRCP, two independents, and one each from Shiv Sena, TRS, CPM, LJSP and DMK.
What is this committee supposed to do?
Committees formed to see that Parliament functions effectively, discuss Bills referred to them by the presiding officers. These MPs assemble during and between sessions, invite officials as well as experts, and are not bound by the party whips when it comes to discussion of a Bill, unlike in the House. Department-related Standing Committees consider demands for grants for the ministry, and take up any subject based on Annual Reports and long-term policy documents relating to the ministries/departments under their jurisdiction
The Committee on IT, which was constituted in April 1993 (then the Committee on Communications), has jurisdiction over subject matters dealt with by the Ministry of Communications including the Department of Posts, Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Electronics & IT, and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
So, does it have the powers to summon Facebook?
The committee has the powers to send a letter to Facebook — or any institution — asking it to appear and give an explanation on a subject. The committee or chairman does not have executive powers, but calling a particular person or an institution as witness is possible. An invitation to appear before a Parliamentary Committee is equivalent to a summons from a court: If one cannot come, he or she has to give reasons which the panel may or may not accept. However, the chairman should have the support of the majority of the members. Any member can call for a meeting to discuss this, and if the majority of the members do not agree, the chairman may have to cancel the summoning, said Subhash Kashyap, constitutional expert and former Secretary General of Lok Sabha.
Kashyap said that in the past, there were instances when the chairman summoned an individual or an institution, but with the ruling party having a majority, it was presumed that the majority was in his/her favour. The situation is different here — the BJP with the majority of members is opposing it.
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What, then, is the BJP’s argument?
The BJP argues that Tharoor neither took the consent of the Committee nor got approval from the Lok Sabha Speaker for his move. Dubey has argued that Tharoor has violated the rules. Rule 269 (1) — Rule 269 in Parliamentary Rule Book deals with the functions of the standing committee – says: “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.”
Does the BJP’s argument hold water?
Yes, if one goes strictly by the rulebook. But as experts point out, the panel chairman can take decisions, especially when the House is not in session or when a meeting is not to take place in the immediate future, and especially when the matter is of great public interest as Tharoor has argued. But again, members can object and the majority can press the chairman to cancel the summons. The rule says 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. So, in this case the Speaker can support or reject Tharoor’s move.
Why is this issue important anyway?
Tharoor has argued that the matter is of great public interest. Parliamentary panels across the world have expressed concern over the role of social media giants like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc over the dissemination of disinformation and fake news on these platforms. Parliamentary panels in the UK, US , Singapore etc have summoned these giants over online disinformation and the use of social media tools for political campaigns.
The report in the WSJ alleged that Facebook, which owns WhatApp (used extensively by BJP in recent elections), had favoured the party and refused to block anti-Muslim posts by BJP leaders fearing a backlash. Referring to hate-speech — a call for violence against minorities — allegedly by Telangana BJP MLA T Raja Singh, the report has cited “current and former” Facebook employees as saying the intervention by Facebook public policy head Ankhi Das is part of a “broader pattern of favouritism” by the company towards the ruling party.
When the Election Commission sought their views over the conduct of polls in Bihar, a number of parties expressed concern that a digital campaign could give an undue advantage for leading parties, mainly the BJP.
During the tenure of the previous Lok Sabha, the IT panel – then headed by BJP’s Anurag Thakur — had summoned Twitter India and asked it to submit its views on the subject of “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platform” after a volunteer group wrote to the committee, alleging the company was biased against right-wing Twitter accounts.
Who all have alleged that Facebook is doing the BJP’s bidding?
After the WSJ report, the Congress sought a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe – a demand repeated by the CPI (M) too – into the allegations made in the report.
The Congress has asked what was the relation between Ankhi Das and Rashmi Das (her sister), who was a president of ABVP’s JNU unit. Earlier, Bloomberg had published a report in December 2017, saying Facebook employees had become de facto campaign workers for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the elections. Another report, in The Guardian in March 2016, also spoke about Ankhi Das’s connections with the BJP.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 19, 2020 under the title ‘House panel, summons power’.
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