Significantly, the standing committee of the information technology (IT) ministry, which was investigating a complaint against Twitter, expanded the scope of the scrutiny, asking whether similar social media outlets were mere platforms or media companies—with rights to edit and curate content.
Interestingly, there was broad consensus within the parliamentary panel, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition party Congress finding common ground.
This assumes significance as a number of regulations, including that on funding, could come under scrutiny if social media platforms are classified as media outlets.
“By classifying a platform as a media outlet it would not automatically translate into restrictions," said Santosh Desai, chief executive and managing director of Future Brands Ltd. “As of now, this seems like muscle flexing. I think to infer that there is some big change in the status of these platforms would be to overreact."
Twitter representatives, including its India public policy head Mahima Kaul, attended Monday’s meeting but could not depose before the panel. However, the company declined to comment on the proceedings of the meeting.
A Google India spokesperson also declined to comment.
During the meeting, members of the parliamentary panel also sought clarifications on foreign direct investment (FDI) rules governing social media platforms such as Twitter.
“The moot question is if social media platforms like Twitter can edit or promote or regulate a certain content then they should come under the rules of media house and cannot be simply treated as a social media platform. The IT ministry has to respond to the parliamentary committee in 10 days," said two people familiar with the development.
In the course of the discussion, the standing committee also argued that if “aggregators" such as Google and Yahoo can choose to promote certain content, they should be treated like a media house because they are involved in news promotion.
“Most of the social media platforms have to define if they are selectors of content or a platform to disseminate views of the people. If Twitter is regulating tweets and is promoting certain information or views, it should be treated as a media house and not a social media platform," the people cited above said, requesting anonymity.
A similar argument has been pursued globally against social media platforms, where lawmakers have sought to hold them accountable for the content hosted on their sites. Recently, they were subjected to intense scrutiny by the US senate.
“In the real world, social media platforms are big organizations with sweeping influence, so much so that to act against them can itself be defeating," Desai said.
In an November 2017 interview, Martin Sorrell, a former CEO of WPP Plc, the world’s largest communications services group, said: “Whether you are right or wrong, it is immaterial. You can’t have people putting out the stuff on these channels—and they are channels of distribution and media—without some influence, control; otherwise there will be mayhem. And anyone who has been subjected to an attack rightly or wrongly on social media knows what I am talking about. You should be responsible for the content."
The debate on the circulation of content on social platforms started after members of the standing committee on information technology pointed out that they have received complaints against social media platforms, especially Twitter.
“There is a view that it needs to be decided whether websites like Twitter are social media platforms or media outlets. A meeting has now been called of Twitter officials in the last week of February but it should be attended by its global CEO and not India representatives," another person aware of the developments said, requesting anonymity.
The timing of the controversy is interesting because social media platforms played an important role in election campaigns of both the ruling alliance and the opposition. Social media platforms have been used by the political parties to promote their views, ideology and for reach out in election campaigns.
“We are looking for their views on issues like how to control fake news. Other big social media players will also be called at a later date but for now we want Twitter to explain their stance. There is consensus in the committee on this view," the person cited above said.
Mint's Saumya Tewari in New Delhi contributed to the story.