US-headquartered online retailer Amazon has refused to appear before Parliament’s joint committee on the data protection bill next week, which could amount to a breach of parliamentary privilege, panel chairperson Meenakshi Lekhi said on Friday, indicating that action may be taken against the company.
Facebook’s policy head for India Ankhi Das, meanwhile, appeared before the panel on the issue of data security on Friday, and was questioned by members on revenue and advertising models, the hiring process as well as “neutrality” within the organisation. It was given two weeks’ time to submit written replies to the questions. The panel has summoned officials of Twitter on October 28, and Google and Paytm on October 29 as part of its investigation into issues of data protection, artificial intelligence and privacy.
“The panel is unanimous in its opinion that coercive action can be suggested to the government against the e-commerce company. Amazon has refused to appear before the panel on October 28 and if no one on behalf of the e-commerce company appears before the panel it amounts to breach of privilege,” Lekhi said.
After Amazon was asked to attend the meeting on October 28, it replied on October 8 to the panel’s letter expressing inability to attend as there is no regular transportation from the US to India, because of which the company’s representatives can’t come from California, said two members of the panel who did not wish to be named.
According to another functionary aware of the matter, Amazon wrote to the committee that it would be unable to attend due to risks associated with travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Owing to the current circumstances and the risks associated with travelling, our subject matter experts who are based overseas will not be able to appear for the deposition. We will therefore have to decline the request for the deposition,” the company’s letter to the committee said.
“Unlike many other entities who seek time or request an alternative schedule for deposition, Amazon did not ask for any such relaxation. They simply conveyed that they can’t come,” said one of the members cited above.
In response to a query from HT, Amazon said: “We have the utmost respect and regard for the important work being done by the JPC on the PDP Bill and have already offered our written submissions for consideration of this august Committee. We will continue to engage in any way the JPC considers fit. The inability of our experts to travel from overseas due to travel restriction and depose before the JPC during the ongoing pandemic may have been misconstrued and led to a misunderstanding and we will work with the JPC to set the record straight.”
Several MPs in the meeting suggested to Lekhi to write back to Amazon and explain the importance of the committee and the consequences it could face if it did not appear before the panel.
“Amazon should know that it is not an option. Parliament rules are absolutely clear that if an entity is asked to appear before the panel, it is mandatory. This is a committee formed by members from both houses of Parliament,” said an MP.
“It was also suggested that the panel should inform the ministries of commerce and information technology about Amazon’s stand over the issue of deposition because if any action is to be taken against the company, the government has to decide it,” said the MP.
Facebook said in a statement that it backed the efforts towards data protection.
“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. 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 Facebook statement said.
According to people aware of the details, the panel sought a detailed written submission to a set of 20-25 questions on the specifics of the company’s policy on taking down pages; on the advertising model that they follow across the globe; and in which country the social media platform pays the highest tax. The company, represented by Ankhi Das and Bhairav Acharya, who are part of Facebook’s policy team in India, was asked questions on whether the company has a “hiring bias”.
“They were asked if it is true that about 90% of their employees have contributed to the Democrats. If that is so, is that the reason why handles that posted New York Post’s news report on Hunter Biden were blocked. They were also probed on the hiring policy and if there is a bias that is reflected in the appointments being made in India and other countries as well,” said a person aware of the details.
There was an uproar last week after the New York Post’s stories based on alleged emails from Hunter Biden detailing his financial relationships with the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma and a Chinese energy firm were prevented from being shared online. Biden’s father Joe Biden is in the race for president.
The social media company was summoned to discuss the issue of the alleged misuse of its platform in the wake of claims that it did not apply hate speech rules to certain BJP politicians, and about the company’s policy on privacy and data protection.
The company defended its position and maintained that it would not be in India’s best interests to insist against cross-border transfer of data, according to people in the know, who added that Facebook said in recent times a large number of start-ups had come to India and if there was no international data transfer these firms would have to leave the country.
Facebook told the panel that in most European countries, parental consent is needed to open an account for children below the age of 13 but in India that figure is 18, which needs to be brought down, said the people cited above, adding that on questions over Facebook’s alleged attempt to manipulate elections in the US, the social media giant denied every allegation.