A parliamentary panel has sent a DM to Twitter. It has summoned chief executive officer Jack Dorsey and team on 25 February after they failed to appear before the panel on Monday citing too short a notice. The panel wants to hear its views on the subject of “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms". But there is more to the subject than meets the eye. Several right-wing sympathizers over the last one year have complained of losing followers overnight, accusing Twitter of censoring information and influencing traffic. Twitter says this was an outcome of a global initiative and did not target any particular geography or individual. The company says it believes in impartiality and does not take any action based on political viewpoints. It maintains that its “product and policies are never developed nor evolved on the basis of political ideology". But such a defence is bound to be neutralized in an election season. The panel, led by Bharatiya Janata Party member Anurag Thakur, has also asked the information technology ministry to assess whether Twitter is a media entity or a social platform. Being a media entity would bring the San Francisco-headquartered company under the stringent norms governing foreign media while a social platform classification means it can’t edit what’s been posted.
A company that derives more than one-tenth of its 321-million user base from India can ill afford to antagonize a parliamentary panel. To be sure, Twitter should be open to a dialogue—a platform that espouses openness and room for all contradictions should be a willing party to any conversation. At the same time, however, India should be mindful of the message that such a summon will send to global business. Significantly, any attempt to filter content will be interpreted as muffling of voices and looked at with suspicion. At a time when freedom of expression is under threat the world over, such attempts only undermine the government’s efforts at inviting foreign capital and becoming globally competitive. Not only corporations, nations are accountable too.
Lawmakers summoning heads of social media platforms is not uncommon. Last year Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by a US congressional panel in the wake of reports that the company shared users’ data with advertisers. The parliament of a country that few can rival in its complexities in terms of caste, religion, linguistics and customs has the right to call the CEO of a company whose end product can have various social repercussions. We must also realize that as citizens, we are yet to fully learn the nature of the beast that social media is. Yet the culture of dialogue, engagement and understanding must never stop because only then can business and democracy co-exist. It should, of course, come without the tweet of defiance or the threat behind the summons.