India, or at least one panel of the Indian Parliament, wants to hold Twitter accountable. For what? “Safeguarding citizens’ rights” on social platforms, according to the official agenda of the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, tweeted out on February 5 by its chairman, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Anurag Thakur. Yet on Monday, the panel refused to meet with officials from Twitter’s India office, who had turned up in response to a summons from the panel.
According to news agency ANI, the 31-member committee passed a unanimous resolution that “they will not meet any Twitter officials until senior members or CEO of the Twitter Global team depose before the Committee”. The panel gave Twitter until February 25 to respond to its summons.
This American-style posturing from Parliamentary panels is unusual. But it makes more sense if you look at the context of Thakur’s actions. Earlier this month, a right-wing group called Youth For Social Media Democracy held a protest in front of Twitter India’s office, and submitted a document to Thakur claiming that the social media platform was “trying to curb free speech of individuals who subscribe to the non-Left-wing ideology”. It also claimed that the platform does nothing about abusive tweets from Left-leaning handles. Soon after this protest and the submission of this document, Thakur summoned a representative of Twitter, making it clear what his impetus was.
From the tack he has taken so far, it seems evident that Thakur wants the BJP’s right-wing base to see him take on the social media company, even though there is little evidence backing up the accusations made by the group, and plenty of proof that right-wing handles are no strangers to sending out offensive, abusive tweets. The panel summons seemed to prompt a response from Twitter Vice President Colin Crowell, who wrote a blog post on Friday insisting that the people who run Twitter “believe in impartiality and do not take any actions based upon political viewpoints”.
If posturing to pander to his base is all Thakur hopes to do with the summons, however, that will be a disappointment. There are very real questions that need to be put to social media companies, which seem to have an inordinate amount of power over the flow of information in the digital age. From concerns about privacy to targeted harassment of women and Dalits to the enabling of illegal activity, tech companies that operate in India should be held accountable, and Parliament is the appropriate forum for this.
Yet this particular panel does not have the most creditable record on this front. Despite opening an inquiry into the question of citizen privacy and data security after the Cambridge Analytica case came to light in early 2018, it has not yet called in any companies or experts to depose. And the BJP-run Union government is no more reliable on this matter, often ignoring serious privacy concerns on matters like Aadhaar and choosing to discuss important policy proposals only with a small group of companies, before being pressured into a wider consultation.
If they are to properly serve the Indian public, Thakur and the panel should use this opportunity to have a wider conversation – one that includes academic experts and civil society – about the influence technology companies have on the rights of citizens, rather than simply grandstanding for his base by doing little more than scolding Twitter.