India's Parliamentary Hearings on Big Tech Need More Transparency

The Parliamentary Committee on IT can fulfill its purpose only with greater clarity, wider involvement, and transparency – much like others across the globe.

Can India’s parliament challenge the power of large social media companies? The situation is often presented as a battle for democracy against unaccountable Silicon Valley firms – but the larger challenge is our own lack of capacity.

Over the past year, the Internet Freedom Foundation has been in an unrequited love affair with the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology. As a civil rights organisation that works on the intersection of our fundamental rights and technology, we constantly engage with all bodies of governance.

Parliamentary committees play a vital role – they select important issues of public concern, invite stakeholder depositions and summon witnesses, and then submit reports which contain recommendations to our lawmakers.

In the theory of a Westminster-style of parliamentary government, this leads to informed and calculated policy interventions through the creation and amendment of laws.

Given the feverish policy activity around technology and digital issues, the Committee on Information Technology should be at the forefront of India’s institutional response.

Little transparency, restricting expertise

The Parliamentary Committee on IT first came to prominence in light of the debate over net neutrality, and thereafter, its engagement with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Specifically, on the latter, the issue at stake was framed broadly as that of “protection and privacy of citizen data”.

Many sensed this as an opportunity for engagement. Data leak was a pressing issue, and a detailed study produce recommendations that would inform our legislators on any eventual proposal on data protection.

Owing to the expertise required, on April 5, 2018, we suggested that the committee coordinate with other government departments and public institutions. Specifically referring to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), which constituted the Justice Srikrishna committee of experts on data protection, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which conducted a consultation on data ownership and privacy.

There was also a need for the committee to call on experts and civil society members for oral depositions and interactions.

Also read: Is the Srikrishna Committee Giving Us a Way to Balance the Rights to Information and Privacy?

The point was not to get a seat at the table, but to make sure that the mission of the committee is better defined and that it benefits from a larger pool of expertise.

Today there are numerous organisations and individuals who constitute civil society, study digital technologies and their impact closely. Their work is to ensure that our country benefits from the spread of internet and smartphones. Such practices won’t be unique to India, and hearings in other countries have similarly invited experts beyond government and tech company representatives.

In the UK, a parliamentary committee included representatives from various sector groups – including an academic, David Carroll an associate professor at the Parsons School of Design; Sandy Parakilas, chief strategy officer at the non-profit Center for Humane Technology; and a renowned privacy activist and lawyer, Max Schrems.

The Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee similarly heard from a number of experts, academics and other platforms and industry stakeholders on the breach of personal information.

The standing committee in its next meeting did, in fact, hear representatives of MeitY. We then wrote to insist on the need for even wider participation, and to list outstanding concerns: such as the lack of fair representation in the Justice Srikrishna committee, the lack of transparency in its consultation process; and the committee’s position on data breach in light of Aadhaar, and on privacy fears in light of the Cambridge Analytica incident.  

Following this, through a press release, the standing committee notified a call for public consultation. It invited suggestions, opinions and even depositions from experts and professionals.

We immediately wrote to the committee, on May 21, 2018 commending their efforts – but urging greater public involvement. Many concerns still remained.

For instance, the notice did not address the publication of the submissions it received nor any process to witness the proceedings (via live webcast or otherwise). Even the submissions to the committee that would later form as records were considered confidential and could not be accessed by anyone.

This conduct is far from the depositions carried out in the UK’s committees hearings on Cambridge Analytica. Even in the US Senate, hearings were webcast live.

In India, not only did the committee not invite expert testimony, it did not even offer transparency for the public – an important stakeholder.

Our constant suggestion has been to make expert voices a focal point –by calling on them for oral depositions, rather than restricting them to a written memoranda. To our disappointment, not one person beyond corporate representatives and government officials have been afforded that attention.

Platform bias and “safety of social media users”

Earlier this year, the committee took up the issue of ‘safeguarding citizens’ data on social/online news media platforms’. We can reasonably infer that this was on the basis of a complaint filed by a right-wing group, Youth for Social Media Democracy, which claimed Twitter was arbitrarily suspending accounts of those who leaned towards the ideologies of the government.

Twitter logo image. Credit: Reuters

As some commentators have pointed out, these complaints may have arisen from Twitter users whose accounts were restricted for publishing abuse and threats. However, this does not take away from the legitimacy of a parliamentary exercise to engage and examine the complex issue of technological bias. To this end, the committee summoned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to a hearing on February 5.

Also read: The Good, Bad and Ugly on India’s Template for How Your Data Will be Protected

High drama and loud TV decibels framed this as a parliamentary authority pitted against a global platform. Debates played up themes of nationalism, sovereignty and the lack of accountability of social media giants based out of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, we maintained our consistent and fairly boring demand.

In a letter dated February 7, we once again questioned the composition of the witnesses to this hearing. The notice by the standing committee only mentioned government and Twitter representatives. It also made no mention of the scope of the hearing, as to what constituted “safety”, and which platforms would be summoned. Many of us wondered about the purpose of these hearings on which so little information was shared.

As hearings continued, we again urged the committee through a letter on February 25 to receive well-informed views on strategies and policies from academics, civil society and experts. The initial rationale behind the hearings – titled ‘Safety of social media users’, and centered on the bias of social media platforms – seemed to have blurred into ensuring the integrity of elections and prevention misinformation.

These are separate problems and require individualised analysis, identification of harms and mitigation strategies. But with just company representatives and government officials present to assist the committee, there is little likelihood of us either dealing effectively with platform bias or misinformation.

While the committee has broadened its horizon beyond Twitter, summoning other tech companies such as Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, there has still been no sign of it including the actual stakeholders – social media users, whose interests to a large extent can be voiced by an active digital-rights community in India.

There is little to indicate that such inclusion will take place in the future, or that the proceedings will be opened up to greater transparency. Some commentators have also questioned the outcomes, in which reports on many issues under deliberation have not lead to recommendations which legislators can act on.

The parliamentary committee can fulfill its functions only with greater structure, clarity in purpose, wider involvement and transparency – much like others across the globe. While many experts are pessimistic, we will continue to write letters to the committee in hopes of a favourable response.

Apar Gupta is the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

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