In a stinging judgment, the Supreme Court on Thursday said giant social media platforms like Facebook , whose active users account for over one-third of the global population, cannot evade responsibility by “simplistically” claiming they have no power over the third-party information they display.
“The sheer population of our country makes it an important destination for Facebook. We are possibly more diverse than the whole of Europe in local culture, food, clothing, language, religion, traditions and yet have a history of what has now commonly been called ‘unity in diversity’. This cannot be disrupted at any cost or under any professed freedom by a giant like Facebook claiming ignorance or lack of any pivotal role,” a Bench led by Justice S.K. Kaul observed in a 188-page judgment.
The court was deciding on a petition filed by Facebook India chief Ajit Mohan challenging the summons issued by Delhi Legislative Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee , enquiring into the communal riots which rocked the Capital in February last year.
The court said Facebook “is a business first than anything else”. By its own admission, the court noted, Facebook appears only before committees which serve their commercial and operational interests.
“But if their business interests are not served, they seek a right to stay away. Such a stand is completely unacceptable to us. Facebook has the power of not simply a hand but a fist, gloved as it may be,” Justice Kaul lashed out.
The court said social media entities like Facebook have to remain accountable to those who entrust them with their vast powers. The power and potentiality of the social media intermediaries runs across borders. They are multinational corporations with large wealth and influence at their command. Their influence extends over populations.
But this power must necessarily come with responsibility, the court underscored.
While admittedly Facebook has played a crucial role in enabling free speech by providing a voice to the voiceless, it has also simultaneously become a platform for disruptive messages, voices, and ideologies, the court said. Established independent democracies are seeing the effect of such ripples across the globe and are concerned. Election and voting processes, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation. Debates on social media are dividing society vertically. The gullible treat rumours put out on social media as gospel truth.
“This has given rise to significant debates about the increasing concentration of power in platforms like Facebook, more so as they are said to employ business models that are privacy-intrusive and attention soliciting,” Justice Kaul, who authored the judgment, pointed out.
The court said the endeavour should be made to differentiate between hate speech and fake news on social media, and legitimate speech, which may make those in power uncomfortable.
The court referred to international instances in which Facebook had to “recognise its role in failing to prevent division and incitement of offline violence”, which includes the stated ethnic cleansing in Myanmar where a crescendo of misinformation and posts, somehow missed by Facebook employees, helped fuel the violence.
“The platform similarly apologised for its lack of serious response to evident signs of abuse of the platform in Sri Lanka, which again is stated to have stoked widespread violence in 2018 in the country,
The United States has seen heated debates arising from the 2016 Presidential elections and the EU has formulated legislative proposals namely the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act.
The court described the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules of 2021, which introduces a range of due diligence measures to be implemented by intermediaries, as a “significant development”.