The notion that the state is the sole aggregate of public interest, responsible for the conduct of people in society, is a 19th-century concept, which is becoming redundant.
While the state plays a necessary function, non-state actors such as corporations play an important role in shaping norms and influencing society. It is possible to argue that the free speech standards of social media companies such as Facebook or Twitter, can have a greater impact on the rights of individuals, than the domestic constitutional law of some countries, given the extensive role played by social media as a forum for communication.
That is why there are serious consequences when Facebook, which has nearly 300 million users in India, fails to act against those misusing the platform to spread hatred and violence against vulnerable communities. This is particularly worrying, since there have been instances of violence in some parts of the country caused by the spread of misinformation through social media posts.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Ankhi Das, the top policy executive of Facebook in India, opposed applying hate-speech rules against members of the BJP who were circulating venomous posts against religious minorities, on the grounds that it could affect the company’s business prospects. In response to this report, the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology, Shashi Tharoor tweeted that the committee would take up the matter. Subsequently, the representatives of Facebook were summoned to testify before the committee on September 2, 2020.
Interestingly, Tharoor’s position was strongly opposed by BJP MPs Nishikant Dubey, Locket Chatterjee and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Dubey argued that the chairman could not call Facebook without discussing the agenda with the rest of the members and alleged that the summons to Facebook was issued at the behest of Rahul Gandhi. This allegation was seconded by Chatterjee, who said that Tharoor was following the commands of his “master.” Tharoor responded with a privilege notice against Dubey, since casting aspersions on the proceedings of a parliamentary committee can constitute as a breach of parliamentary privilege.
Standing committees and government
Parliamentary standing committees are important forums to ensure government accountability, to undertake important studies and inquiries, to produce important reports on law and policy, which are placed before the parliament and the public at large. The committee works based on an agenda which is determined by its members and approved by the speaker.
Item Number 2(iv) of the committee’s agenda covers “Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space”, which clearly includes the issue of how social media companies deal with hate speech on their platforms. Therefore, there is no need to include any new agenda, for the committee to summon the representatives of Facebook on this issue.
Rule 269 (1) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha empowers the committee to call for the testimony of witnesses, through summons issued by the secretary-general. This is a procedural rule and does not vest any substantive right with the secretary-general to review the merits of the summons, and in the usual course of business, the summons are issued at the direction of the chairperson.
It is important to note that Rule 269 (3) states that to withdraw or alter documents presented to the committee, the approval of the committee is required. However, the requirement for approval of the committee members is omitted in Rule 269(1). If it is implied that all decisions of the committee need to be expressly approved before taking any administrative step, then there would have been no requirement to expressly mention the prior approval of the committee under Rule 269 (3). The omission of this requirement along with the normal practice of summoning witnesses, shows that the express prior approval of members of the committee is not required in summoning witnesses in furtherance of the committee’s pre-approved agenda.
However, if a member feels that the evidence of a person is not relevant for the purposes of the committee, then he or she may raise it before the committee. If it is not resolved, then the question shall be referred to the speaker as per Rule 270. It would be incumbent on the objecting members to explain why discussing the Wall Street Journal report with Facebook representatives, is irrelevant to the agenda, i.e the misuse of social media platforms.
Instead of providing this explanation, the BJP MPs have written to the speaker to remove Tharoor as the chairman of the committee. The objecting MPs may also call for a vote on the issue during the proceedings of the committee to cancel the summons, citing Rule 261 which states that any question during a sitting of a committee, shall be determined by a majority of the members present and voting. This would also require the objecting MPs to explain the lack of connection between the summons and the agenda.
Speaker does not have the power to remove the chairman
It is important to note that neither the speaker nor the members of the committee have the power to remove the chairman. Dubey requested the speaker to invoke powers under Rule 283 against Tharoor. However, Rule 283 only provides for the speaker to give directions to regulate the procedures or organisation of the work of the committee – it does not empower the speaker to remove the chairman.
Nevertheless, there is an alternative route available to stop Tharoor’s continuation as the chairman. The term of the committee is for a period of one year, and the same members are re-nominated to the committee, till the end of the term of the Lok Sabha. Therefore, it is possible that in the name of reconstituting the committee, Shashi Tharoor can be dropped from his current position. However, breaking parliamentary traditions and conventions to do so, would evoke adverse reactions from the opposition, which the speaker may wish to avoid.
Dubey’s letter railing against Tharoor, calling him a speaker of ‘Spenserian’ English, probably does justice to Spenser’s fear of the English tongue becoming “a gallimaufry, or hodgepodge” of words. Nevertheless, if the report of the Wall Street Journal is accurate, then one may pinch some lines of Shakespearean English to say that something is rotten in the land of Facebook, and the standing committee must investigate the rot.
Arvind Kurian Abraham is a lawyer based in Delhi.