A crucial feature of a Parliamentary democracy is the ability of the legislature to act as an oversight for all actions of the executive. Every action of the executive, whether law or policy, necessarily needs to be scrutinised by the legislature. At a time when the technology-race is forcing governments to make difficult and irreversible decisions, a legislative oversight is imperative.
Over time, the role of the legislature has been reduced to simply passing bills introduced by the executive. However, the legislature’s ability to act as a check on the powers of the executive continues to exist. Legislatures exercise this oversight through subject-specific committees. Some committees not only analyse legislations, but also go further to interrogate members of the executive such as the heads of departments and even bureaucrats assisting the heads. This has led to an effective check on executive overreach.
In recent years, Parliamentary committees also question corporations in situations where their decisions impact public interest. This proactive approach has become increasingly necessary given the increasing use of technology-driven services in every aspect of society. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are increasingly being questioned for their role in creating public opinion and also influencing voting patterns in elections. These corporations are being asked to explain their policies on issues such as hate speech, targeted advertising and even sources of funding. Owing to the reach of such corporations, politicians have adapted to these systems, thereby using these social media platforms for political purposes.
In India, Facebook has been criticised for selective implementation of its hate speech policies. Recently published documents point towards ties between the company and political parties in India. Facebook has been accused of not implementing its hate speech policies for accounts associated with the party that currently is in government, that is, the BJP. Executives of the company’s India operations have allegedly insisted on acting in a manner so as to not harm the company’s relationship with the Indian government. Incidentally, such revelations are identical to issues faced by the company in several other jurisdictions.
As the social media platform has become indispensable as a means to reach voters and influence public opinion, it is universally accepted that Facebook must put in place stringent checks in order to curb the spread of propaganda, hate speech or false news. Since politicians of the ruling party have been allegedly favoured, it would be improper to assume that the government can undertake an independent investigation. In such situations, Parliamentary committees play a crucial role.
Recently, the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology summoned Facebook to explain its position on the issues discussed above. However, while the Committee hearing took place, the public at large remains unaware of the outcomes of the hearings. Neither has the Committee issued a press release, nor has the issue been discussed in Parliament. The absence of transparency hampers the effective working of Parliamentary scrutiny.
The United States Congress has acted as an effective check on executive authority. When Facebook had been accused of allowing false news and propaganda on its platforms during the 2016 Presidential elections, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was required to testify before committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both the chambers have separate procedures, however, transparency in committee hearings is an important similarity. The House of Representatives, under House Rule XI specifically requires that all committee hearings must remain open to the public. Moreover, the House mandates that all committee hearings, even if they are held for discussing legislations must be available to the public through radio, television and still photography coverage. Similarly, Senate Rule XXVI(5)(b) allows all committee proceedings, including hearings to be open to the media.
The only exception that both the chambers grant is in situations wherein the committees by a recorded vote agree that the proceedings should be closed to the public owing to the nature of the hearings. The House of Representatives, under Rule XI, allows for a closed hearing in instances where the disclosures may defame, degrade or intimidate any person, endanger national security, compromise sensitive law enforcement information or violate a rule of the House. Similarly, the Senate committee procedures allow closed hearings if the members agree that the disclosures in the hearings could disclose matters pertaining to national security, classified information pertaining to foreign policy that must be kept secret, the identity of an informer or a law enforcement agent or if the hearings would disclose trade secrets or sensitive financial information.
As a result, it is a norm that all committees have open hearings that are available for the people to see. The Congressional committees have been successful in informing citizens. Committee hearings led Facebook to admit that they could have done more to prevent the spread of false news.
In the United Kingdom, the right to analyse legislations and government policies is exercised by select committees constituted in the House of Commons as well as the House of Lords. In such committees, members may call for documents, and summon individuals to give oral evidence or even set up sub-committees for closer scrutiny of topics.
Similar to the United States Congress, the select committees can have private as well as public meetings, however, Parliament as a whole insists on committee hearings being public. Private meetings take place in order for members to decide on inquiries and consider reports. Whereas the committees open to public sessions in instances of questioning witnesses. Usually, committees shift from public sessions to private meetings in order to deliberate and formally draft the report. All public sessions are available to the media in real time as well as in the form of recordings. Hence, select committees in both Houses allow for public viewing and they only have private sessions during deliberations.
In contrast to the United States and the United Kingdom, the Indian Parliament follows different procedures. In addition to select committees for deliberations on contentious legislations, the Indian Parliament also has Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs) which consist of members from both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The scope of the DRSCs include the consideration of financial demands from Ministries, examination of legislations referred to them, consideration of annual reports as well as long term policies of the government.
Similar to the select committees, the DRSCs can avail of expert opinions in addition to public opinions while drafting their reports. However, Rule 266, a general rule applicable to all committees set up under both Houses is that all proceedings shall be confidential. Similarly, sittings of the DRSCs, which have members from both Houses, are not open to the media. Information on proceedings can only be made public once a report of the committee is tabled in Parliament.
While open proceedings are characteristic of all committee hearings in the US and the UK, secrecy remains the norm in India. It is this distinction that changes the character of committee hearings in India. Committee hearings, when available to the public, hold significant value, both for the legislature as well as the government official. When committee meetings are held in private, neither do the people know the outcome of the meeting nor do they know the position of the government in matters of crucial policy. Exceptions for closed meetings are justified in instances wherein the committee hearings would disclose information pertaining to national security or where the committee deliberates on the findings. However, information of witnesses and testimonies of officials should not be held in private.
In the case of Facebook appearing before the DRSC on Information Technology discussed above, owing to the absence of a live telecast, we do not know what took place within the committee, moreover, we are not informed of Facebook’s responses to allegations of favouritism and improper implementation of its hate speech rules. Such a setup favours Facebook as it may not provide clear answers. Further, confidential proceedings allow committee members to act on a partisan basis, contrary to the role of an inquisitorial Parliament.
It is clear that the ability of big corporations to influence political processes and institutions must be countered by effective legislative scrutiny – both of the executive as well as the corporations which are increasingly becoming agents of the State. Indian Parliamentary procedures must become more transparent – this will not only improve legislative oversight but also create an informed public opinion.