Facebook officials depose before Parliamentary panel, 'fail to give satisfactory responses'


NEW DELHI: Facebook representatives failed to give satisfactory responses to the questions raised by the parliamentary committee on personal data protection bill, 2019, on the sensitive issues of storing data of Indian users outside the country, safeguarding its leakage and misuse, payment of corporate and other taxes here, ideological and other biases while blocking users and the process of vetting advertisements that appear on its site.

Facebook officials Ankhi Das and Bhairab Bhattacharya deposed before the joint committee on Friday during a sitting that lasted for more than two hours. Members cutting across party lines posed questions and most of them were not satisfied with the replies given by the company representatives.

Sources said MPs sought to know the details of data flowing out of India. Facebook officials, who were deposing to give suggestions on the personal data protection bill, 2019, suggested that data flow outside India should be allowed as it’s useful for start-ups, commerce between nations and other economic purposes.

“The Facebook officials were of the view that the clause in the bill that says data of Indian users should be stored in India should be dropped. This was not acceptable to the committee members,” the sources told ET.

The members sought to know about the repository of data and the safety of the same as its leakage can lead to serious issues. A member said, according to one of the sources mentioned above, several Indian Facebook users had shared their blood group in search of donors or to donate during the Covid-19 pandemic. Storing such health-related data – blood group, health background, city and so on – in another country and its leakage could lead to misuse.

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The committee also asked the Facebook team, it is learnt, whether it planned to change its policy in the wake of its recent tie-up with Jio, which adheres to the Indian privacy and data protection laws. They did not give any clear answer, the sources said. The lawmakers felt the data should be categorised as personal, sensitive, commercial and so on.

The parliamentary panel also sought to know how the advertisements put up on Facebook are vetted, according to a source. This issue gains importance in the wake of the recent Tanishq advertisement on various channels and platforms. Sources said the Facebook representatives informed the committee that the vetting was done by its US-based staff. Their reply on the methodology followed for vetting didn’t convince the panel.

The FB team suggested the clause in the bill on consent for usage of social media without parental guidance should be reduced to 13 years. The bill says it should be 18 years.

They also maintained that various other clauses on consent should be removed and the authentication methodology and process should be made voluntary. The Facebook team said the clause on “inference drawn” from a post put up by a user is too wide and should be removed.

At one point during the meeting, one of the opposition members fumed that the Facebook officials appear to have come unprepared, presuming that the MPs do not know much about the social media and the various ways in which it can be misused, said a source.

The joint committee sought to know how much corporate tax Facebook pays in India, which is its biggest consumer base. The Facebook officials informed the committee that there are more than 450 million FB users in India, 400 million WhatsApp users, and a 100 million Instagram users (these two are also owned by the company).

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