Preventing Sophie Zhang from Testifying Is a Blow to Indian Parliamentary Democracy

Facebook whistleblower Zhang had sought to appear before the Standing Committee on IT to reveal facts about Facebook users in India. However, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla had, against precedent, said that foreign nationals cannot do so.

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India has the largest number of Facebook users in the world, with an estimated pool of more than 400 million users. By 2040, it is estimated that Facebook users in India will be approximately 970 million.

This has major ramifications for Indian democracy as social media platforms, especially Facebook, have become an important medium for political discourse. Therefore, disinformation campaigns on Facebook, especially those that increase divisions between religious communities, and the proliferation of inauthentic accounts or ‘bots’, significantly threaten the political process in India. 

Facebook claims that it is doing everything it can to filter out bots and malicious disinformation campaigns. However, some of its former employers are blowing the whistle on these claims.

Sophie Zhang, a data scientist who worked with Facebook for three years, came out with a damning memo in 2020 alleging that Facebook refused to take action against politically influential actors who were violating the platform rules.

Zhang also said that she turned down a $64,000 severance package from Facebook which would have legally mandated her to maintain silence about the information she learnt during her time with the company, so that she could bring these claims to the public domain. 

In October, 2021, Zhang testified before a Parliamentary Committee of the British Parliament on Facebook’s failure to act against the abuse of its platform. Across the pond, another former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before a Senate Committee of the US Congress.

One of Zhang’s revelations dealt with malpractices in India. She alleged that Facebook refused to act against fake accounts after it was found out that these were personally linked to Vinod Kumar Sonkar, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics.

Also read: Facebook Inaction: Whistleblower Documents Name BJP MP Vinod Sonkar in ‘Fake Account’ Controversy

She expressed an interest to depose before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT to disclose the facts that she had learnt about Facebook’s practices with users in India. 

The Standing Committee on IT stood dissolved between September 12 and October 12, 2021 and was it thereafter reconstituted by the Speaker with Congress leader Shashi Tharoor as its chairperson.

Soon as its reconstitution, in November, 2021, Tharoor sought the Speaker’s permission to allow Zhang to testify before the Committee in person, as the current rules and practices do not allow oral testimonies through virtual technology. If Zhang has to testify in person before the Committee in New Delhi, then arrangements have to be made to provide her with travelling allowance and daily allowance, for which the Speaker must provide his approval.

Six months after Tharoor’s official request as the chairman of the Standing Committee, the Speaker’s office had still not responded.

Zhang tweetedI still have not heard from the honourable speaker. I no longer believe that I will ever hear from him.”

Also read: Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Unlikely to be Deposed Before Standing Committee

While a dossier submitted by Zhang was circulated among the members of the Committee, her inability to testify in person robbed MPs of the opportunity to cross-examine her and to seek additional information or clarifications. 

In June, 2022, Speaker Om Birla broke his silence on the matter by saying that unless it is a very serious issue, foreign citizens are not allowed to appear before parliamentary committees. He said that if other Speakers had permitted it in the past, it was their individual decision and that there is no rule to give permission to foreign nationals. 

It is worth noting that the power of the Standing Committee on IT to summon individuals under Rule 230 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha does not make any distinction between individuals on the basis of their nationality. While it is true that the Speaker can issue directions to Standing Committees as per Rule 280, the directions can never supplant the rules.

Furthermore, in this case, the Speaker had not even responded to the Chairman of the Committee, let alone issued a direction. In fact, Direction 57(1) of the Speaker’s Directions states that, “A Committee may take evidence of experts or interested parties on their own initiative or on requests made.” Again, it does not provide for any differential treatment to those who are foreign citizens. 

There are precedents of foreign citizens deposing before parliamentary committees. In February, 2019, when Anurag Thakur of the BJP headed the Standing Committee on IT, summons was issued to Jack Dorsey, the then CEO of twitter, who also happens to be an American citizen, to depose before the Committee.

While Dorsey did not appear before the Committee, Colin Crowell, the vice president of the global public policy department of Twitter, did. Crowell is also an American citizen and faced no difficulties in testifying before the committee. 

On September 18 and 19, 1987, the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) investigating the Bofors deal, examined Per Ove Morberg, the president of Bofors, and Lars Gothlin, vice president of Nobel Industries, in person in New Delhi. Both these individuals were foreign citizens and their nationality had no bearing on their ability to testify before the JPC.

The power of summons in relation to a JPC and a Standing Committee are the same, the only difference is that a JPC is an ad-hoc committee, with a limited mandate. 

It is incumbent on Speaker Om Birla to explain why he decided, against precedent, that foreign citizens should not appear before parliamentary committees in the normal course. He said that foreign citizens can only testify if it is a ‘very serious issue.’ When the committee has already adopted the abuse of social media as an agenda for study due to the serious ramifications it has for the nation, and when the chairman has held Zhang’s claims to be worthy of the committee’s scrutiny, how can the Speaker deem it not serious? 

Parliamentary committees are the eyes and ears of the Parliament of India. Since the entire Parliament cannot dedicate time to study every major issue concerning the country, multiple committees exist to undertake the requisite scrutiny, in order to improve policies and to hold the executive accountable.

Prior to the 1990s, committees were too under-staffed to scrutinise government activities; there was no continuity in membership, nor any effort in specialisation of subjects. Most grants and Bills were voted on in Parliament without any committee scrutiny.

Parliamentary reforms were initiated in the early 1990s, with the formation of ‘Subject Committees’, which later came to be known as ‘Standing Committees’, with the hope that these committees would strengthen Parliamentary democracy. 

To prevent a committee studying the misuse of social media from hearing a witness holding important information about the practices of the largest social media platform, is a blow not only to the committee but to Parliament itself.

Since the information held by Zhang has not attracted much Indian media attention and has little to no electoral value, her inability to testify before the parliamentary committee is not a major element in the current political discourse. Nevertheless, the issue is less about Zhang per se, but the nature of Parliamentary democracy we wish for the country.

Weakening parliamentary committees undermines the very nature of parliamentary accountability. The decision of the Speaker to not facilitate her appearance before the committee is an adverse precedent which contributes to the ongoing debasement of the Parliament of India; a decision which he must seriously reconsider. 

Arvind Kurian Abraham is an advocate with an LLM from Harvard Law School and a B.A LL.B (Honours) from NUJS.