July 9, 2021

Facebook's Role in Delhi Riots Must Be Looked Into by Powers That Be: SC

The top court dismissed the social media giant's India vice president Ajay Mohan's plea against summons issued by the Delhi assembly peace and harmony committee as pre-mature.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday observed that the national capital cannot afford any repetition of the violence that took place in February last year, while dismissing a plea by Facebook India’s vice president and managing director Ajit Mohan challenging the summons issued by the Delhi assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee for failing to appear before it as a witness in a matter related to the riots.

According to news agency PTI, the top court observed that digital platforms like Facebook have become power centres with the ability to influence opinions. They must be accountable, the court said, adding 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 matter.

The court stressed that the Indian motto of ‘unity in diversity’ cannot be disrupted and the role of Facebook in the context of the riots must be looked into by the powers that be.

The Northeast Delhi riots had left 53 people, many of them Muslims, dead and 200 injured.

Upholding the Delhi assembly’s right to summon, the top court said while Facebook has played a crucial role in enabling free speech by providing a “voice to the voiceless” and a means to escape state censorship, it cannot lose sight of the fact that it has simultaneously become a platform for disruptive messages, voices, and ideologies.

Entities like Facebook, which has around 270 million users in India, have to remain accountable to those who entrust them with such power, it said.

A bench headed by Justice S.K. Kaul held that the Delhi Legislative Assembly and its committee have the power to compel the attendance of members and outsiders on grounds of its privilege,

While acknowledging the distribution of power, it said that though law and order and police do not fall under the legislative domain of the Delhi assembly, in the larger context the concept of peace and harmony goes much beyond that.

It said in any case, the representative of the social media giant would have the right to not answer questions directly covered by these two fields.

In its 188-page verdict, the bench, also comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy, said that members and non-members can equally be directed to appear before the committee and depose on oath and Facebook cannot excuse itself from appearing pursuant to the new summons issued to them on February 3, 2021.

“The need to go into this incident [the riots] both from a legal and social perspective cannot be belittled. The capital of the country can ill-afford any repetition of the occurrence and thus, the role of Facebook in this context must be looked into by the powers that be. It is in this background that the Assembly sought to constitute peace and harmony committee.”

“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’,” the court said.

According to the Indian Express, the bench also noted that social media platforms are not “altruistic in character but rather employ business models that can be highly privacy intrusive and have the potential to polarise public debates”.

“For them to say that they can sidestep this criticism is a fallacy as they are right in the centre of these debates,” the bench said.

The court also said that Facebook has taken contradictory stands in different jurisdictions, noting that in the US, it has projected itself as a publisher, giving it protection under the First Amendment against removal of content.

“Conspicuously in India, however, it has chosen to identify itself purely as a social media platform, despite its similar functions and services in the two countries. Thus, dependent on the nature of controversy, Facebook having almost identical reach to population of different countries seeks to modify its stand depending upon its suitability and convenience,” the court said, according to the Indian Express.

The immense power held by platforms like Facebook has stirred a debate across the world, the bench said, noting the endeavour “to draw a line between tackling hate speech and fake news on the one hand and suppressing legitimate speech which may make those in power uncomfortable, on the other”.

“The significance of this is all the more in a democracy which itself rests on certain core values. This unprecedented degree of influence necessitates safeguards and caution in consonance with democratic values. Platforms and intermediaries must subserve the principal objective as a valuable tool for public good upholding democratic values,” the order said.

The court said that in this modern technological age, it would be “too simplistic” for the petitioners to contend that they are merely a platform for exchange of ideas without performing any significant role themselves especially given their manner of functioning and business model.

It also said that the election process, which is the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation and digital platforms can be imminently uncontrollable at times and carry their own challenges.

The apex court said that information explosion in the digital age is capable of creating new challenges that are insidiously modulating the debate on issues where opinions can be vastly divided and successful functioning of a liberal democracy can only be ensured when citizens are able to make informed decisions.

On the matter relating to the summons issued by the Delhi Assembly, it said there is no dispute about the right of assembly or the committee to proceed on grounds of breach of privilege per se and the power to compel attendance by initiating privilege proceedings is an essential power.

Also read: 'Govt Is Ready for Discussion': Agriculture Minister to Farmer Unions

In the given facts of the case, the issue of privileges is premature, the bench said, adding, Canvassing a clash between privilege powers and certain fundamental rights is also pre-emptory in the present case.

“Facebook today has influence over 1/3rd population of this planet! In India, Facebook claims to be the most popular social media with 270 million registered users. The width of such access cannot be without responsibility as these platforms have become power centres themselves, having the ability to influence vast sections of opinions,” the court said. PTI

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