Facebook ought to appear before Delhi House panel: SC

Committee of Peace and Harmony is enquiring into circumstances leading to February 2020 communal riots

Updated - July 08, 2021 03:53 pm IST

Published - July 08, 2021 03:48 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Ajit Mohan

Ajit Mohan

The Supreme Court on Thursday said Facebook ought to appear before the Delhi Legislative Assembly Committee of Peace and Harmony enquiring into the circumstances leading to the February 2020 communal riots .

Investigation of a socially complicated problem was within the domain of the legislature, it noted.

The judgment pronounced by Justice S.K. Kaul, however, said the committee cannot behave like a prosecution agency trying to probe whether Facebook was innocent or guilty of anything.

Domains of Centre

The court said the committee cannot delve into prohibited zones of law and order and criminal prosecution. These were the domains of the Centre. Besides, courts were already seized of the criminal trials of the accused in the riots. The official representing the social media giant need not respond to questions from the committee on these domains.

Delhi riots | Legislative Assembly has no power to call Facebook official, Centre tells Supreme Court

The court criticised the Delhi government side for its remarks in the Press about Facebook in connection with the riots.

“The statements made in the Press conference by respondents were hardly conducive to the proceedings before the committee,” the court stated in its verdict.

The judgment was reserved in February last. The case concerns a petition filed by Facebook India head Ajit Mohan against summons issued to him by the committee. He had challenged the summons and the threat of breach of privilege posed by the panel if he refused to testify about any role played by social media platforms in the events leading up to the riots.

Right to silence a virtue in these “noisy times”: Facebook official

The apex court found Mr. Mohan’s petition “premature”. The court agreed with the Delhi Assembly that he had been summoned for his assistance in dealing with a social problem. He had not been subjected to any coercive action. The court also recognised the polarising effect of social media.

Right to silence

Mr. Mohan had urged the court to recognise his right to silence as a virtue in these “noisy times”. He had argued that the right to silence was as important as the right to free speech. He had submitted that the committee, by compelling a private person to appear before it by dangling the threat of a privilege motion, had failed in both competence and jurisdiction.

The Centre had also, during the court hearings, questioned the competence of the committee to pass recommendations to regulate social media.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, had argued that parliamentary laws like the Information Technology Act were already in place to deal with social media intermediaries.

“Offences pertaining to social media intermediaries are statutorily defined by Parliament. The field is occupied by a central Act... If there is a problem, the answer is not to give power to a Committee of a State legislature. There should be a national response by a national body, namely, Parliament,” Mr. Mehta had submitted.

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