Unwilling to appear before Delhi assembly panel: Facebook to top court

Facebook India told the Supreme Court on Thursday that it is unwilling to participate in the proceedings before the Delhi legislative assembly’s peace and harmony committee, which is probing the Delhi riots of February 2020 and the role of the social media giant in failing to curb hate speech in connection with the riots.

Senior counsel Harish Salve, representing Facebook, told a bench headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul that the proceedings before the Committee are outside the scope of jurisdiction of the Delhi assembly and that Facebook is regulated by central law — the Information Technology Act (IT Act).

“I am not willing to go before them. Allegations are being made that Facebook has created disharmony in Delhi. Facebook does not write anything. It provides a platform. We are regulated by a central law – the IT Act,” Salve said.

The central government also threw its weight behind Facebook stating that Delhi assembly’s action in holding such an inquiry is without jurisdiction.

“Public order and police are not under Delhi assembly and their action is without jurisdiction,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the central government, submitted.

The court was hearing a plea by Facebook India and its vice-president and managing director, Ajit Mohan challenging the September 10 and September 18 notices issued by the Committee that sought Mohan’s presence before the panel as part of its inquiry into the Delhi riots.

The Delhi government has maintained that Mohan was summoned as a witness to ascertain the social media platform’s views on the question of whether it had contributed in any way to the building up of a situation in Delhi that ended in communal riots in February 2020.

The Committee wanted to elicit suggestions on how social media platforms could be used to strengthen the unity among the citizens of Delhi in the future and Mohan and others were summoned in this regard as witnesses and not as accused and no coercive action was intended against them, an affidavit filed before the top court by the Delhi Legislative Assembly on October 6 said.

“It is the inherent right of the Legislature to examine matters of public importance and for that purpose to require the presence of persons who are performing a duty of public importance or who has expertise in the matter, before the Committee,” the affidavit stated.

Consequently, Mohan cannot claim right to remain silent or to be let alone in response to the summons to depose before a lawful Committee of an empowered legislature, and the right to remain silent is not a fundamental right except when the person is an accused under Article 20 of the Constitution, it added.

The bench headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul on Thursday adjourned the matter for December 2 so as to enable parties to file necessary pleadings before the court. The interim protection granted by the apex court to Facebook officials on September 23 from appearing before the Committee will continue till the next date of hearing, the court said.

The bench which also comprised justice Dinesh Maheshwari remarked that the issue to be considered is whether the Delhi legislative assembly has the power to deal with the subject matter in question.

The Committee is investigating Facebook’s alleged complicity in the Delhi riots after it received several complaints from the public pursuant to an article was published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on August 14.

The WSJ report titled ‘Facebook hate speech rules collide with Indian politics’ had alluded to the role allegedly played by top Facebook officials, particularly its public policy head Ankhi Das, by citing business imperatives to refrain from applying hate-speech rules to at least 4 individuals and groups linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though such groups and individuals had been internally flagged for promoting or participating in violence.

Mohan was first summoned by the Committee for its meeting of September 15 in connection with the complaints alleging deliberate omissions and inaction by the social media company in removing hateful content and posts. The Committee had earlier said that in its meeting of August 31, it had prima facie found Facebook India was allegedly complicit in aggravating the communal violence in north-east Delhi in February that left at least 53 people dead and over 400 injured.

Facebook officials had failed to appear for the September 15 meeting after which a second notice was issued on September 18 asking Mohan to appear before it on September 23. Facebook India and Mohan approached the top court on September 22 challenging the notices.

It was contended that the summons violates the right of the petitioner to remain silent and right to privacy which are fundamental rights under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

“By targeting Facebook – a platform that allows users to express themselves – the summons create a chilling effect on the free speech rights of users of the Facebook service,” the petition stated.

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