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(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Facebook grilled by parliament panel, Amazon in cross hairs over refusal to attend

  • The members of JPC raised questions about data protection and data portability with the Facebook India representatives
  • Amazon conveyed in a letter to the committee that most of its experts were overseas and it was difficult for them to travel at this time

New Delhi: Social media platforms like Facebook came under pressure from parliamentarians on Friday as the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) looking at the Personal Data Protection Bill asked the representatives of the company about portability of data, advertisement revenue generated from India and corporate tax was being paid by them in India.

Members of the JPC have also warned e-commerce giant Amazon, which conveyed in a letter to the committee that most of its experts were overseas and it was difficult for them to travel at this time. There is a growing sense among parliamentarians of JPC that strict action should be initiated against Amazon for not appearing before the parliamentary committee.

“The JPC was unanimous and all the members were annoyed that Amazon decided not to appear before the parliamentary committee. There is a view that union government should intervene and strict action should be taken against Amazon. There are a number of steps that can be taken, some of the members have also suggested to move a privilege motion against Amazon. But what is the guarantee that representatives of Amazon would come before the privilege committee. If they can skip a meeting called JPC, what is the guarantee that they will appear before any other parliamentary committee," said a person in the know of the development.

Members of JPC also said strict action is needed to be taken against Amazon because if one company had refused before the parliamentary committee and it was possible that in future more companies and individuals too could just skip meetings or refuse to appear before a parliamentary committee. Confirming the move, JPC chairman Meenakshi Lekhi told Press Trust of India that “the panel is unanimous in its opinion that coercive action can be suggested to the government against the e-commerce company".

During the discussion with representatives of Facebook on Friday, members of JPC asked the representatives about the amount advertisement revenue being generated by the company in India. “To the question of advertisement revenue being generated by Facebook in India, the representatives of the company did not have an answer. JPC members were not satisfied or happy with the replies of the representatives of the companies and they have been asked to submit a written reply. The JPC had asked them submit all the replies in one week but they have asked for two weeks," said a person in the know of the development.

The members of JPC also raised questions about data protection and data portability with the Facebook representatives. Parliamentarians said that while there were millions of users of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp in India, the personal data of users was being stored outside the country.

“This is a security issue and it is important for security purposes. The issue of cross border data storage is important because if tomorrow the state wants to retrieve the data then how will it possible? We also asked who is the repository of the data? If tomorrow a court wants some data, how can we get it? What will happen in such a scenario?" said a person in the know of development.

The parliamentary committee was also keen to know about the corporate tax being paid by Facebook in the country but the representatives were not able to reply to questions in a satisfactory manner. The meeting on Friday was attended by Facebook's policy head Ankhi Das.

"We deeply appreciate the opportunity to discuss data regulation issues with the Hon'ble Members of Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill. We believe that India’s data protection law has the potential to propel the country’s digital economy and global digital trade, and we wholeheartedly support this effort," a Facebook Company spokesperson said in a statement. “That is why we deeply appreciate to be a part of this discussion and will continue to work alongside governments and regulators to find the right solutions which not only protect users’ privacy but are also interoperable with other major global privacy regulations" the statement added.

According to people aware of developments, two rounds of meeting of meetings of the JPC could be called next week with representatives from social media platforms including Twitter, which declined to officially comment on it. “These are ongoing meetings and all aspects are in relation with the Personal Data Protection Bill. Two rounds of meetings could take place next week including some of the global online giants and homegrown online portals," another person aware of developments added.

The less than one-year old JPC has held 14 sittings till now deliberating over the Bill. It has received representation from key ministry stakeholders like electronics and information technology, law and justice, home affairs among others along with representatives from think tanks and trade bodies.

Saumya Tewari and Prasid Banerjee contributed to the story

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