The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the authority of Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee to summon Facebook India’s senior official Ajit Mohan in connection with the February 2020 communal violence, saying the Capital can ill-afford another riot, and the role of Facebook “must be looked into” in this context.
“It is difficult to accept the simplistic approach adopted by Facebook — that it is merely a platform posting third-party information and has no role in generating, controlling or modulating that information,” a three-judge Bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul observed.
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The 188-page judgment referred to how Facebook itself claims to be the most popular social media in India, with 270 million registered users. Social media platforms like Facebook have become “power centres” with the ability to influence vast sections of the public opinions, the court noted. These platforms are by no means altruistic in character. They employ business models that can be highly privacy intrusive. It compared Facebook to a “mass circulation media” with no or little editorial responsibility.
“Facebook has acknowledged in their reply that they removed 22.5 million pieces of hate speech content in the second quarter of 2020 itself,” Justice Kaul, who authored the judgment, observed.
Facebook cannot claim any “exceptional privilege” to abstain from appearing before the Peace Harmony Committee constituted by the Delhi Assembly. The court termed Mr. Mohan’s appeal in the apex court “premature”, saying no coercive action was taken or intended. The Committee merely wanted him to depose as a witness.
The court lashed out at how the social media giant, by its own admission, 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 emphasised.
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The court rejected Facebook’s argument that the Committee had no jurisdiction over law and order in Delhi, and it was encroaching into the Centre’s turf.
“The concept of peace and harmony goes much beyond law and order and police… The unfortunate communal riots led to the death of 53 persons, caused significant damage… The complexity of communal tensions and their wide-ranging ramifications is a matter affecting citizens of Delhi. It cannot be said that the Government of Delhi cannot look into the causal factors in order to formulate appropriate remedial measures,” Justice Kaul reasoned.
The judgment said an “informed deliberation” by the Assembly’s elected representatives on the best measures to combat online mass hate and violence in their geographical jurisdiction was very much within the Committee’s competence.
However, the court said the Facebook representative appearing before the Committee need not answer any query from the Committee directly regarding law, order and the police.
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The court dismissed Facebook’s argument that the Assembly ought to confine itself to making laws rather than enquire into the circumstances of the riots.
“We cannot accept the plea that an Assembly must confine itself to the core function of legislation. This would be unreasonably restricting the role of an elected body… It is not only their concern but their duty to ensure that ‘peace and harmony’ prevails,” the court underscored.
The court also declined a plea that the Committee had no power to summon “outsiders” or non-Members of the Assembly like Facebook.
“Members and non-members can equally be directed to appear before the Committee and depose on oath,” Justice Kaul observed.