NEW DELHI: Social media platforms cannot operate like news media without accountability, India’s parliamentary panel on information technology told representatives of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, who appeared before it on Wednesday.

The 31-member parliamentary panel is considering whether social media platforms are aggregators or selectors of content. Stepping up their scrutiny, members of the panel questioned the representatives over three keys issues—allegations that they acted as a lobby group in various countries, the scope of human intervention in their processes and whether or not they had ombudsmen in place for grievance redressal.

Members of the parliamentary committee have asked these social media platforms to reply to the questions in writing, said two people aware of the development. Committee members also wanted to know what was the extent of human intervention in these three platforms, they said. The date of the next meeting has not been fixed yet.

During the course of the meeting, panel members also wanted to know if there was an ombudsman appointed by social media platforms so that people could reach out to them with complaints. Members also wanted to know if the three media platforms had appointed ombudsmen in other countries.

“We have asked the social media platforms to ensure that (the platforms are) not used to create division in society, incite violence, pose threat to India’s security or let foreign powers meddle in Indian elections," Anurag Thakur, chairman of the parliamentary committee, told reporters. “These three platforms admitted that there was scope for corrective measures and they would undertake these measures at the earliest. The three platforms have said they will be in touch with the Election Commission and work on the information provided by the ministries concerned."

In two earlier meetings, the committee had asked representatives of Twitter whether it should be treated as a media organization or a social media platform.

“We are grateful to the Honorable Parliamentary Committee for giving us the opportunity to show how we are preparing for the Indian elections and helping keep people safe," Joel Kaplan, vice-president (global public policy) at Facebook, said in an emailed response to Mint.

The committee’s remarks are significant as they come just weeks before the likely announcement of general elections due by May. Having started off as an investigation in a case against Twitter, the committee has now expanded its scope of inquiry to other social media platforms.

"There's a greater sense that the conduct and the way the panel is approaching the issue will not lead to anything significant since Parliament is not in session. Social media platforms largely are adept at negotiating with the government. What is lacking in India is an absence of a firm, legally binding obligation by an institution, accountability for profiling of voters or data breaches," according to Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation. 

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