The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to quash the summons issued by the Delhi Assembly’s Committee on Peace and Harmony to the social media giant Facebook in connection with the 2020 Delhi riots. Although the court said that the committee does not have the power to order prosecution, it said that the committee has the authority to summon Facebook officials and question them.
The petitioners, Facebook and Facebook India MD Ajit Mohan, had approached the court against two summons issued to the latter on September 10 and 18, 2020, seeking his presence in the context of complaints that the platform had failed to remove hate speech material.
A bench of Justices SK Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy made several remarks on the power of social media and observed that “Facebook’s role is not so ‘innocuous’ and is more ‘active’ while dealing with the third party information.”
“Facebook cannot take a “simplistic approach” that it is merely a platform posting third party content with no role in generating, controlling or modulating information,” said the bench. “Facebook is a platform where such political differences are reflected. They cannot wash their hands off the issue as this is their very business,” it added.
As per a Live Law report, elaborating on their decision, the bench informed that the national capital cannot afford the repetition of such an event and thus, the role of Facebook in this context must be looked into. Justifying the Assembly’s concerns, the court noted that just because it is a local legislative and governance body, one cannot conclude that their concerns were misconceived or illegitimate.
Cannot deny use of algorithms
The bench, referring to the use of algorithms by the social media companies to decide what content a user gets to see stated, “It is too late in the day for companies like Facebook to deny that they use algorithms (which are sequences of instructions) with some human intervention to personalise content and news to target users. The algorithms select the content based on several factors including social connections, location, and past online activity of the user”.
To this, the court referred to several cases like Facebook’s role in the Myanmar genocide, Sri Lankan violence and other countries where the social media platform is facing the axe.
“Voting processes stand threatened by social media manipulation”
Observing the pivotal role played by the social media platforms in influencing the voting and election process, the bench remarked, “Election and voting processes, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation. 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.”
“India’s unity in diversity cannot be disrupted”
The bench also took a jibe at the social media platforms wanting to wash their hands off their responsibility despite India being one of the biggest markets for them. “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,” observed the court.
The bench also stressed on the importance to draw a line between tackling hate-speech and fake news on the one hand and suppressing legitimate speech.
While refusing to quash the plea, the bench also observed that the Assembly constituted to enquire into the circumstances leading to the Delhi riots cannot encroach into the domain of “law and order.”
The Assembly wanted to make Facebook a party and accused in the Delhi Riots case which has been declined by the bench. The Court made it clear that the Committee cannot have a misconception that it is some kind of a prosecuting agency. “If the Committee is raising any question which is falling with the prohibited domain of “law and order”, the representative of Facebook can refuse to answer it,” the Court concluded.