A Twitter row over the mandate of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on Personal Data Protection Bill erupted between politicians as news reports trickled out that the BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi-led committee had grilled Twitter for not taking down “obscene” tweets by comedian Kunal Kamra targeting Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde. Lekhi said that the JPC has sought a reply from Twitter over the matter within seven days, PTI reported. She reportedly said that the issue received support across political spectrum in the committee, with support from Congress MP Vivek Tankha, Bahujan Samaj Party MP Ritesh Pandey and Biju Janata Dal MP Bhartruhari Mahtab.
This came a day after Twitter apologised to the JPC via a written affidavit for incorrectly geo-tagging Ladakh as a part of China and promised to resolve the issue by November 30. During the November 19 meeting, the JPC heard from companies that had not submitted their post-evidence replies apart from hearing from cybersecurity firm Cyble and payments company PayPal.
After the meeting, Lekhi reportedly said that Twitter’s explanation on banning handles and tweets was inadequate. The JPC had asked Twitter India’s policy head Mahima Kaul to clarify its policy of blocking and removing users and tweets, the Hindustan Times reported. Twitter told the JPC Kamra’s tweet on the CJI cannot be removed without a court order, LiveLaw tweeted.
Kamra, against whom Attorney General K.K. Venugopal had consented to initiate criminal contempt proceedings for his tweets critical of the Supreme Court, has meanwhile refused to retract his tweets or apologise for them.
Tharoor, Lekhi, others clash over JPC’s remit
All this prompted Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, the chairperson of the Standing Committee on Information Technology, to publicly question the JPC’s mandate:
Dear @M_Lekhi, as far as I am aware your Committee was formed for consultations on the Data Protection Bill & its mandate is to report on the statutory provisions continued in the draft Bill. Could you clarify if you have taken on additional responsibilities & on whose authority? https://t.co/LNO7aImM8F
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) November 19, 2020
In response, Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh, a member of the JPC, tweeted: “I could not attend the meeting today, but had I been there I would have raised this very issue @ShashiTharoor. It is not the first time this has happened.” Fellow Congress MP and IT Committee member, Karti P. Chidambaram had also tweeted that the JPC “has no authority over this”.
This prompted Lekhi to respond to Tharoor and cite support for the move from Congress MP and member of the JPC, Senior Advocate Vivek Tankha:
Travesty that I have to respond to people who are busy exhibiting their lack of understanding. I refuse to run law tutorials specifically when Sr Advocate from Congress Party Mr Vivek Tankha was present in the committee & has already concurred with me. @ShashiTharoor https://t.co/5zipbYvUor
— Meenakashi Lekhi (@M_Lekhi) November 19, 2020
Less than an hour later, Tharoor volleyed back, telling Lekhi that the remit of the JPC is limited to the provisions of the Personal Data Protection Bill and report thereon.
. Seems some people do need “tutorials” on the mandate of special committees formed to discuss specific bills. This JtCmt is to discuss the provisions of a draft data protection bill&report thereon. Parliament has not been informed of an expansion of its mandate beyond this task.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) November 19, 2020
Earlier this morning, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey, a member of Tharoor’s committee who has in the past disagreed with Tharoor over summons sent to Facebook, waded into the controversy:
Sir our committee is selected committee but @M_Lekhi committee is elected committee,like in every district level Disha committee Loksabha MP is chairman and Rajyasabha MP’s are co chairman,sir I think you need some tutorials https://t.co/sA4ff26PGL
— Dr Nishikant Dubey (@nishikant_dubey) November 20, 2020
This is not the first time that a turf war has erupted between the IT Parliamentary Standing Committee and the Joint Parliamentary Committee. When the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, was referred to the JPC in December 2019, Tharoor had called it a “brazen disregard for the Standing Committee” and warned that it would make the Standing Committee on IT ineffective. At the time, he had requested IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to send the Bill to the Standing Committee.
Digital rights group asks Lekhi to seek civil society views
Delhi-based digital rights group, SFLC.in, meanwhile has written to Lekhi, asking her to “invite civil society organisations that defend rights of citizens in the digital space” to depose before the JPC. The letter highlighted the “core deficiencies” of the Bill such as “the lack of surveillance reforms, wide exemptions, and the problems with the Data Protection Authority”.
The JPC has thus far met 31 times since the committee was formed in December 2019. In its 32nd meeting today, it is hearing representations from Bangalore-based think tank iSPIRT, and card network companies Mastercard and Visa. In its 32 meetings, the JPC has heard from ministries, government agencies, social media intermediaries, ride-hailing services, fintech firms, and a cybersecurity firm, but not from a single civil society organisation except the Delhi-based Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Centre that focusses on a number of issues including innovation, environment and education.