BJP, Congress spar at Parliament’s IT committee meeting over Facebook

Politics


New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress sparred at the crucial meeting of the parliamentary committee on Information Technology (IT) on Wednesday as both the ruling party and opposition traded allegations that some of the representatives of the social media platform, Facebook, were under the influence of opposition parties and those related to the BJP respectively.

The developments are significant because in the course of the nearly three-and-a-half-hour long meeting it was decided that another round of meeting with Facebook officials will take place possibly next week. According to members aware of developments, representatives from Facebook were told to given detailed written responses to all the questions posed on Wednesday when the committee meets next.

In the meeting on Wednesday, while senior members of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have given names of at least 8 officials of Facebook who they suspected are either under the influence of Congress or Left parties, those from opposition particularly Trinamool Congress (TMC) too handed over a similar list of names which they think have connections with organizations related to BJP. Congress too made similar allegations while expressing their views in the meeting.

“We firmly believe that social media platform Facebook which came for the hearing has a lot to explain and a lot of questions to answer before the committee. Members of BJP and NDA have given a list of people, including names and designations of people who they suspect have been associated with Congress and Left parties. There are names at least 8 people who are allegedly employed with Facebook at present. Members of Facebook have been asked to come back with written replies on these questions,” said those in the know of development.

The meeting which continued for over three hours is likely to meet before the start of monsoon session of Parliament, which is scheduled to commence on 14 September and continue till 1 October. In the marathon meeting, senior leaders of the BJP-NDA have also asked a written explanation from Facebook about the recent allegations made by US-based Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that Facebook was favouring BJP and its alliance partners in the 2019 general elections.

“We firmly believe that not even one member of BJP is working at the Facebook. The social media platform also has to give in writing an explanation on the basis of which these allegations were made against the ruling party. In the next meeting, members of Facebook will come before the panel with written explanation,” said those in the know of development.

Ajit Mohan, Managing Director of Facebook India, appeared before the panel this afternoon, officials said. According to people aware of developments, Facebook officials informed the social media platform has deleted 22.5 million hate speech videos all over the world but they did not have India specific figures. They added that they will give India related figures in the next meeting.

“The meeting has been called again and meanwhile Facebook officials have been asked to respond to questions posed today in written. Both Congress and BJP raised very strongly issues of political collusion with Facebook official, it was a heated meeting in that sense. A list was handed over by some opposition members of officials they think have connections with right wing. But we feel in between all this the real question over Facebook’s neutrality has been lost,” said another member of the panel adding that on its part Facebook officials maintain that their actions are neutral and they do not support any specific party.

Posting on Twitter soon after the meeting got over, panel chairman Shashi Tharoor said : “In response to overwhelming media interest in the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology that just adjourned, this is all I can say: we met for some three and a half hours and unanimously agreed to resume the discussion later, including with representatives of Facebook.

According to another member who attended the meeting on Wednesday, the long-stretched meeting happened because members from almost all political parties were told to express their views. “We are of the considered view that the social media platform has links with the union government including some of the ministries that it works with. We also demanded that there should be a suo-moto process of removing hate content which does not seem to be happening pro-actively right now,” the third member added.

On Wednesday, the panel had also called representatives of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on the same issue, while a few others including some digital media activists also deposed before the panel. According to people aware of developments, 18 members of the panel including the chairman were present in the meeting.

“We thank the Honorable Parliamentary Committee for their time. We remain committed to be an open and transparent platform, and to giving people voice and allowing them to express themselves freely,” said a Facebook company spokesperson in an emailed response to Mint.

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