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Delhi communal riots: Facebook’s role ‘must be looked into’, says SC

Krishnadas Rajagopal NEW DELHI | Updated on July 08, 2021

The Supreme Court adds that the panel cannot behave like a prosecution agency

The Supreme Court on Thursday said Facebook ought to appear before the Delhi Legislative Assembly Committee of Peace and Harmony, enquiring into the circumstances leading to the February 2020 communal riots.

Investigation of a socially complicated problem is within the domain of the legislature, the court noted.

A judgement pronounced by Justice S.K. Kaul, however, said the Committee cannot behave like a prosecution agency trying to probe whether Facebook was innocent or guilty of anything.

The court said the Committee cannot delve into prohibited zones of law and order and criminal prosecution. These were the domains of the Centre. Besides, courts were already seized of the criminal trials of the accused in the riots. The Supreme Court said the official representing the social media giant, need not respond to questions from the Committee on these domains.

The court criticised the Delhi government side for its remarks in the press about Facebook, in connection with the riots.

"The statements made in the press conference by respondents were hardly conducive to the proceedings before the Committee," the court noted in its verdict.

The judgement was reserved in February this year. The case concerns a petition filed by Facebook India head, Ajit Mohan, against summons issued to him by the Committee. Mr. Mohan had challenged the summons and the threat of breach of privilege posed by the Committee if he refused to testify about any role played by social media platforms in the events leading up to the riots.

The apex court found Mr. Mohan's petition "premature". The court agreed with the Delhi Assembly that Mr. Mohan had been summoned for his assistance in dealing with a social problem. He had not been subjected to any coercive action. The court also recognised the polarising effect of social media.

Mr. Mohan had urged the court to recognise his right to silence as a virtue in these "noisy times". He had argued that the right to silence was as important as the right to free speech.

He had submitted that the committee, by compelling a private person to appear before it by dangling the threat of a privilege motion, had failed in both competence and jurisdiction.

The Centre had also, during the court hearings, questioned the competence of the Delhi Legislature's Committee on Peace and Harmony to pass recommendations to regulate social media.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, had argued that parliamentary laws like the Information Technology Act were already in place to deal with social media intermediaries.

"Offences pertaining to social media intermediaries are statutorily defined by Parliament. The field is occupied by a Central Act... If there is a problem, the answer is not to give power to a Committee of a State legislature. There should be a national response by a national body, namely, the Parliament," Mr. Mehta had submitted in the hearings.

Published on July 08, 2021

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