Amazon faces JPC action over refusal to appear; panel grills FB on data

Topics Amazon | JPC | Facebook

Meenakshi Lekhi, chairperson of the JPC (right) & Facebook India Policy Head Ankhi Das
E-commerce giant Amazon has “declined” the request of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on Data Protection to appear before it, as “its subject matter experts are based in the US”. The JPC sees this as contempt of Parliament and has decided to take on the e-commerce major.

“The committee in its entirety is of the unanimous view that it will not accept such a response and will take every action in its powers (to compel Amazon to appear),” said Meenakshi Lekhi, chairperson of the JPC. A letter to this effect will go out from her office to the company.

Amazon’s letter declining to depose was shared by her with other members at the end of the JPC meeting on Friday. The company was scheduled to appear before the panel on October 28. Representatives of Paytm, Google, and Twitter have also been summoned the same day.

Facebook India Policy Head Ankhi Das, who appeared before the committee along with the company’s India head Ajit Mohan, was asked probing questions on the tax it pays and the revenue generated from its 300 million users in the country. During the meeting, a member suggested that the social media giant should not put the data of its users for the benefit of its advertisers. 

“We deeply appreciate the opportunity to discuss data regulation issues with members of the JPC. 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,” a Facebook spokesperson was quoted as saying by agencies. “We 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 draft Personal Data Protection Bill mandates the storage of critical data of individuals by internet companies within the country, while sensitive data can be transferred overseas only after the explicit consent of the data owner. The Bill was drafted after a Supreme Court judgment in August 2017 declared the right to privacy a fundamental right. Stakeholders are invited to depose before the JPC to give their point of view on the subject, the panel has heard 38 witnesses so far.

On Amazon’s stand, a member of the JPC who belongs to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said: “Amazon represents a big part of the puzzle that is data protection. The company has the data of millions of Indians. If they refuse to depose before the JPC, it makes you wonder what they have to hide. Maybe they are in breach of some laws and don’t want to tell us. We will get to the bottom of this.”

Another member of the JPC said, “All this (private data) information is going to the US. At this point, we don’t have laws in India to properly regulate this. As Amazon is a significant stakeholder in personal and public data protection legislation, we invited them to share their views with us. They could have said they cannot appear immediately; or they could have sought more time. But saying they ‘decline’ to appear is tantamount to challenging the authority of Indian Parliament’.”

If Amazon is found guilty of contempt of Parliament, the consequences ‘are not trivial’, said a member. Parliament’s powers of punishing contempt are analogous to those of the Supreme Court, flowing from the provisions of Article 105(3) of the Constitution. Parliamentary rules say: “The House may punish a person found guilty of breach of privilege or contempt of the House either by reprimand or admonition or by imprisonment for a specified period. The penal jurisdiction of the House is neither confined to its own members nor to its officers, but extends to all contempt of the House, whether committed by members or by persons who are not members, irrespective of whether the offence is committed within the House or beyond its walls.” 

Imprisonment for the duration of one session of the House is possible (as in the case of some persons who threw down leaflets and shouted slogans from the visitors’ gallery). However, admonition (the mildest form of punishment) or reprimand (a more serious mark of displeasure of the House) is also possible.

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