NEW DELHI: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to force the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology (IT) to modify its agenda for two days of its meetings. The members of the Committee who belong to various political parties have been sparring over a series of issues related to the committee including influencing Facebook over social media posts and throle of parliamentary panel’s chairman Shashi Tharoor.
A revised notice for the meeting on 1 September has officially dropped the words “UT of Jammu and Kashmir” with respect to discussion on suspension of telecom and internet services – a move that had been criticized by BJP members in the panel. Additionally, the revised agenda for 2 September meeting, where Facebook officials have been summoned, has been made expansive by calling subject experts to speak on the issue of safeguarding citizens’ rights and preventing misuse of social/online news media platforms.
“Committees like these have wide ranging powers and unilateral suspension of particularly internet services are pretty much in its ambit. We are still looking at the issue in Bihar and Delhi and the dropping of Jammu & Kashmir could be because of the views conveyed by the Speaker. We feel it shows that it shows flexibility of taking a step back if norms do not permit it,” a senior opposition member from the panel said requesting anonymity.
The development is significant because it comes in the backdrop of Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla writing to heads of parliamentary committee to not discuss matters which are sub-judice. Members of the panel feel that the message going out could be that the if something does not come under the ambit of norms and rules then the topic could be avoided.
The meeting is also important because the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) along with like-minded parties has managed to get support of at least 19 members of the 30 member parliamentary committee.
Another member added that the home department of Bihar had responded with its views justifying the suspension and so the focus will be on it and Delhi. “This however has no connection with calling officials related to Facebook. I think that issue is more or less settled but we will get to know only when the meeting happens,” the second member of the panel added.
Interestingly, the modified agenda for 2 September has called Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and journalist as well as author and senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta – both of whom had appeared last week at a meeting of the peace and harmony committee of Delhi legislative assembly which is looking into Facebook’s alleged inaction to tackle harmful content.
“I was asked to depose in front of the Delhi committee as well and I answered questions that were posed to me. I have co-authored a book ‘The Real Face of Facebook in India’ and done detailed related news reports last year so that could be a reason. I am not sure what the parliamentary committee will ask but I will answer accordingly,” said Thakurta.
“It is a significant issue because I have argued in my book how the BJP’s social media army has been influencing different social media platforms. If Facebook thinks what it is doing is good for their business then it is very unethical,” he added.
Officially, the BJP has denied all charges of collusion with social media websites including Facebook and Whatsapp. The instant messaging platform has now come under political fire with the Congress party demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe on allegations of collusion and the BJP accusing that the IT committee would take it up next owing to political motives.