Submit data on complaints: Delhi assembly panel to Facebook
The committee on peace and harmony of the Delhi assembly, inquiring into the northeast Delhi riots that took place in February 2020, on Thursday sought a series of clarifications and information from Facebook India on steps taken by the social media giant in curbing and taking down inflammatory content and fake news in the country.
The committee sought to know the company’s organisational capacity to handle and gate-keep the high volume of content from India, which accounts for almost 40% of Facebook’s total users globally.
Facebook India’s (Meta platforms) public policy director Shivnath Thukral and its associate general counsel Saanjh Purohit deposed before the committee chaired by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Raghav Chadha on Thursday. Representatives of Facebook India were first summoned to appear before the panel on November 2, but the hearing was postponed to November 18 on a request from the company.
The proceedings of the committee, which went beyond the scheduled limit of two hours, were significant because it was the first time that people could see lawmakers question Facebook India officials and hear their answers on issues ranging from hate speech to their system of fact checking. The social media giant informed the panel that it has one billion users across the world, of which at least 400 million are from India.
Chadha and committee member BS Joon, also an AAP MLA, asked Facebook India to furnish data on user complaints and the subsequent action taken by the company in each case for a period of one month before and 60 days after the February 2020 riots in Delhi, in which 53 people were killed. Thukral said offensive material is removed from the platform by employing human reviewers and artificial intelligence. However, he acknowledged that these tools are not always perfect and there is still scope for improvement.
The panel grilled Thukral and Purohit on whether the company has a definition of “hate speech”, especially in the Indian context. To this, Thukral replied: “Hate speech definition is very much there in the community standards. But it is ever evolving. For example in India, based on the inputs from civil society, we included caste slurs in the evolving definition of hate speech. Our community standards are a global document. We believe hate speech definitions apply uniformly across the world and whenever there are local considerations we would take them into account.”
From time-to-time, the panel members and the Meta Inc officials kept referring to each other paragraphs from the Supreme Court’s July 8 order which upheld the powers of the Delhi assembly to summon both members and non-members, including representatives of Facebook. The order, however, said the panel could not engage in topics dealing with police, law and order, or land in its proceedings as these subjects are outside the purview of the committee as well as the elected government.
Asked what actions were taken to curb inflammatory content during the riots last year, the representative said, “This is a matter of law and order and it is part of an ongoing investigation. Also, as per the SC judgment, I exercise my right to not comment on it.”
The SC order came after Facebook India vice-president and managing director Ajit Mohan moved the Supreme Court on September 22 last year, challenging similar summons issued by the peace panel on September 10 and September 18. The summons stemmed from the committee’s decision to look into Facebook’s role following several foreign media reports that purported to show that the social media company may have acted in a politically partisan manner.
Facebook India was also asked to provide details on the composition of its team based on religion. “Explain the composition of the Facebook India team including the number of religious minority employees. What is the religious affiliation of people working in Facebook India?”Chaddha asked. To this, Thukral said, "As far as we understand, Indian laws don’t allow us to differentiate based on religious affiliations when we hire. We do not ask such questions. As per IT laws, there is due diligence that we follow."
Thursday’s proceedings also revealed that Facebook India had no dedicated grievance officer for the country when the riots took place last year. Thukral informed the panel that a grievance officer for the company’s India operations was appointed in May this year.
Other questions to which the social media giant did not give clear answers included whether their fact-checkers are audited, how do they ensure their civil society partners are not biased, the basic criteria for recruiting the grievance officer, how its algorithm works, and whether it played any special role in curbing hate speech during and after the 2020 riots. The company was asked if it has a dedicated content policy team in India for the country and whether there is any gradation of hate speech.
Chadha asked Thukral how many languages Facebook hosts on its platform and whether it has fact-checkers for each. Thukral replied that Facebook India hosts 20 languages but has a (fact checking) system which covers only 11 of those. He said Facebook detects problematic content on the platform and at least 97% of it is removed. In case of a user complaint, acknowledgement is given in 24 hours and the entire cycle to work on the complaint is completed within 14 days. In September, 182,000 pieces of content were removed from the platform, Thukral said.
Chadha said the committee will take into account the information presented before it after Thursday’s proceedings. “Given the vast user base in India, it is always imperative for the global headquarters as well to intervene and account for the shortcomings and improvements in the market specific to the Indian context. The committee will further deliberate and decide on recalling the Facebook officials for another round of proceedings and examination,” he said.