Facebook must appear before Delhi assembly riots panel, says Supreme Court

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday held that Facebook must appear before a Delhi assembly committee to respond to queries regarding its role and other aspects of the February 2020 Delhi riots, as it emphasised that the social media intermediary cannot escape responsibilities after becoming a “power centre” that can “polarise public debates” and “influence vast sections of opinions”
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Published on Jul 08, 2021 11:56 PM IST
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By Utkarsh Anand & Abraham Thomas

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday held that Facebook must appear before a Delhi assembly committee to respond to queries regarding its role and other aspects of the February 2020 Delhi riots, as it emphasised that the social media intermediary cannot escape responsibilities after becoming a “power centre” that can “polarise public debates” and “influence vast sections of opinions”.

“Facebook cannot excuse themselves from appearing pursuant to the new summons issued to them on February 3, 2021... Facebook is a platform where political differences are reflected. They cannot wash their hands off the issue as this is their very business,” said the bench, headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul.

At the same time, the court clarified that the peace and harmony committee of the Delhi assembly cannot become a “prosecuting agency” which can hold people guilty and order filing of charge sheets in the riot cases. The Facebook executive will be at liberty not to answer questions relating to law and order and police, while such a refusal cannot lead to any coercive step by the assembly, said the bench, which also included justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy.

The bench dismissed the petition filed jointly by Facebook and Facebook India head Ajit Mohan against the summons issued to Mohan by the Delhi assembly committee, which is headed by Aaam Aadmi Party MLA Raghav Chadha, noting that the committee had authority to seek attendance of “non-members” of the assembly as well and to ask them to depose on oath on a subject within its jurisdiction.

Underlining that Delhi assembly was as good as any other state assembly, with the only exception of absence of legislative powers on land, police and public order, the top court rejected Facebook’s contention that it cannot be compelled by any committee of the parliament or the state assembly to participate in an inquiry and that its move to appear before a parliamentary panel last year on information technology was a “business decision”.

“As per their own acknowledgement, they would only appear before any committee if it served their commercial and operational interests, as it did when they appeared before the parliamentary committee. 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,” said the bench in its 188-page judgment.

It bench, however, pointed to certain statements made on the alleged collusion of Facebook in the Delhi riots by the Chadha during a press conference in August last year, and said that “such statements are hardly conducive to fair proceedings before the Committee and should have been desisted from”.

While Facebook and Mohan were represented through senior advocates Harish Salve and Arvind Datar, the Delhi government had senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Rajeev Dhavan and advocate Shadan Farasat to argue for the government and the committee. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta appeared for the central government, which supported Facebook in saying that the summons could not be issued for want of legislative competence - an issue that the court called “premature”.

Holding that lawmaking is not the only business of a legislative assembly, the bench underscored the role of an assembly committee in assisting the legislature in various issues of governance and said that Facebook, with their expanded role as an intermediary, “can hardly contend that they have some exceptional privilege to abstain from appearing before a committee duly constituted by the assembly.”

The court further termed the Facebook’s petition plea “premature” and “speculative” since the Facebook executive was yet to appear before the committee to understand the ambit of questioning, and therefore, it said, issues of privilege power, right to free speech and silence, right to privacy etc. were “pre-emptory” and a “preventive endeavour”. It further said that the privilege power of the Delhi assembly was not just a statutory power but a constitutional one, on par with any other state assembly.

Highlighting that the “unfortunate violence” that broke out in north-east Delhi in February 2020 had left 53 people dead and several hundreds injured, the bench underlined that the need to go into this incident, 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..the assembly being a local legislative and governance body, it cannot be said that their concerns were misconceived or illegitimate. It is not only their concern but their duty to ensure that ‘peace and harmony’ prevails,” said the court.

Thus the committee, said the court, has the power to go into the incident and issuance of summons is key to this investigative exercise, which cannot be sidestepped by Facebook on the premise that it is an “outsider” which does not want to be drawn into a political divide.

“Facebook is a platform where such political differences are reflected. They cannot wash their hands off the issue as this is their very business. As noticed earlier, their role is not as innocuous as they are seeking to contend. Similarly, 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,” held the bench.

About the scope of the inquiry by the committee, the court said it would undermine the very purpose of a vital democratic polity if it were to say that informed deliberation in relation to the best measures through which online mass hate and violence in their geographical jurisdiction can be addressed would not be within the committee’s area of competence.

Chadha welcomed the judgment. “The court has reaffirmed and acknowledged the important role of the committee of peace and harmony. We will study the judgment, and shall thereafter continue the proceedings in terms thereof. The committee, like other legislative committees of the assembly, is keen on continuing a genuine deliberative process on issues of concerns in the NCT of Delhi with full participation of all concerned,“ he said.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021