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What went wrong with Twitter India? Firsthand account from Parliament

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‘Very soon we will cover the rotten Twitter India, it’s the last nail in its coffin’ I said to my fellow journalist while walking from Indian Parliament secretariat to parliament house a few years back. The parliament session was going on, and an unusual thing happened that forced me to make such a statement. It was pre-Covid days.

‘Why you think so?’ my friend asked, and I had the answer as it was very rare that a parliamentary committee called a meeting during the parliamentary session, because as per the international parliamentary practice, meetings of parliamentary committees are usually not called during the sessions to avoid any kind of distraction for member MPs.

We knew that in India, the media is barred from covering parliamentary standing committees, neither the chairman of any parliamentary committee is supposed to talk to media regarding any matter taken-up by the committee, nor any member can revealed the agenda or minutes of parliamentary standing committee, but for the public good, media tried hard to get the issues trialed by the parliamentary standing committees as these all known as ‘the mini parliaments’ due to their compositions which fairly represent all regions of the country and all the major political parties.

The said parliamentary committee was headed by a women MP and all the members were from the same gender, so it was sure that the issue is of serious nature and must be related to women & children. We were right as the parliamentary committee summoned all social media platform companies to investigate the steps taken by them to ensure safety of their Indian women & children users.  

We were shocked when we saw junior officials of the public policy & communication department of leading social media platform companies’ Indian subsidiaries were sent to represent their respective companies before the Indian parliamentary committee. It was against the parliamentary protocol as the head of the summoned company only can appear before any parliamentary committee.

Remember, when in the USA, the congressional committee summoned Google & Facebook; Sunder Pechai, then Google CEO of Google; now he is the CEO of Alphabet, the parent company of Google & its subsidiaries; appeared before the congressional committee and faced tough questions from the member senators. We know how Mark Zuckerberg the Facebook founder was uncomfortable when the congressional committee members started grilling him over the privacy issues and the commercial interest of his company.

We came to know that the Indian parliamentary standing committee summoned the global CEOs of these companies, but the Indian subsidiaries of these companies outrightly declined saying their global CEOs can’t appear before any such Indian parliamentary committee. It seems that these social media platforms companies’ global management take it as demining just because they still consider India as a third world nation.

Forget about the global CEOs, even their Indian subsidiaries’ heads, their Indian operation MDs or CEOs do not bother to give a thought to Indian parliamentary committee’s summons. The news was broken and it went hard which later resulted in issuing a stringent diktat from the committee to social media platform companies. One company fired its communication chief for such negligence; others pulled up their India teams, but the damage was done, apologies followed which failed to wipe out the deep scare between social media platform companies and the Indian government relation, and now, after years, a week back we saw the Indian government came up with the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issued a notification amending the IT rules, saying that the Government has decided to set-up 3 members Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs) to ensure the rights of Indian users on such social media platforms. These GACs are empowered to hear cases of negligence from the social media platform companies and take appropriate actions against the companies.  

Recently we saw Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, firing companies top officials, including Indian origin global CEO Parag Agrawal, Global public policy & legal Vijaya Gadde with others. News is coming that Twitter India’s entire marketing and communication team is fired, most of the engineering team members have shown the door.

Gadde, known as the most influential voice in decision making at Twitter HQ, had been on target for her role in many controversial cases, intestinally irk right wing lobby by favoring left wing over many issues, not to forget action against RSS chief twitter account, unofficial supporting anti-Modi twitter accounts like Alt news Mohammad Zubair, meeting Barkha Dutt & others while Jack Dorcy holding a placard with caste related slogan.        

Now the questions arise, why India is so important for social media platforms companies including Twitter, and what went wrong with the Indian management of these companies. First let’s go through with the brisk business these social media platform companies are doing. About 58.7% people around the world are on social media platforms, one or many, which is counted into about 4.65 billion, and resulted into an estimated $ 221.29 billion business in the year 2022.

Remember this ‘big data’ is much bigger than the GDP or economy of the maximum number of the countries around the world, more than half of the Indian union budget. Facebook itself does $ 86 billion business whereas youtube does $28.8 billion, Instagram has $24 billion so the TikTok does $11billion, follow by $ 5 billion by Twitter & Whatsapp. Notably, all these companies mint money or say billions of dollars because of the ‘big numbers’ of their Indian users.

We must not forget the foreign investors invest in companies with ‘Big Numbers’, and Indian market provides them as the Facebook has 330 million Indian users, so the You Tube has 467 million and the Instagram has 230 million, it means the Facebook got as big as number of users equaling to US population.

The entire Europe’s population is about 750 million, a number these social media platform companies can get from India; still these social media companies were ignorant or say not willing to comply with Indian government’s sentiments, say because of personal ego or liking- disliking of someone from the global top management team, it at last it has hit hard to hundreds of employees, here in India or worldwide. I remember a saying, common in the global corporate world,’ when you do business, just do business.’

(Author, a Delhi School of Economics scholar, is a journalist covering international affairs & global economy)

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