Delhi cannot afford repeat of February 2020 riots: Supreme Court



NEW DELHI: The national capital can ill-afford any repetition of riots witnessed last year, the Supreme Court Thursday said and stressed that ‘unity in diversity’ of India cannot be disrupted and the role of Facebook in this context must be looked into by the powers that be.

“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. It is in this background that the Assembly sought to constitute peace and harmony,” a bench headed by Justice S K Kaul said.

Observing that Facebook has been playing a significant role in giving a voice to various sections of society across the world, the apex court said that it has to be noted that their platform has also hosted disruptive voices replete with misinformation.

“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,” the bench, also comprising Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy, said.

The crucial observation came in a judgement by which the top court dismissed the plea of Facebook India Vice President and MD Ajit Mohan challenging the summons issued by the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony committee for failing to appear before it as witness in connection with the north-east Delhi riots matter.

“In this modern technological age, it would be too simplistic for the petitioners to contend that they are merely a platform for exchange of ideas without performing any significant role themselves – especially given their manner of functioning and business model.

“Debate in the free world has shown the concern expressed by Governments across the board and the necessity of greater accountability by these intermediaries which have become big business corporations with influence across borders and over millions of people,” the bench said.

The top court said that Facebook today has influence over one third of the population of this planet.

“In India, Facebook claims to be the most popular social media with 270 million registered users. The width of such access cannot be without responsibility as these platforms have become power centres themselves, having the ability to influence vast sections of opinions. These have had a direct impact on vast areas of subject matter which ultimately affect the governance of States.

“It is this role which has been persuading independent democracies to ensure that these mediums do not become tools of manipulative power structures. These platforms are by no means altruistic in character but rather employ business models that can be highly privacy intrusive and have the potential to polarize public debates. For them to say that they can sidestep this criticism is a fallacy as they are right in the centre of these debates,” the bench said.

It said that Facebook as a platform is in the nature of a mass circulation media which raises concerns of editorial responsibility over the content circulated through its medium.

“The width of the reach of published material cannot be understated or minimized. Facebook has acknowledged in their reply that they removed 22.5 million pieces of hate speech content in the second quarter of 2020 itself, which shows that they exercise a substantial degree of control over the content that is allowed to be disseminated on its platform,” the apex court said.

The top court said the business model of intermediaries like Facebook being one across countries, they cannot be permitted to take contradictory stands in different jurisdictions.

“Thus, for example in the United States of America, Facebook projected itself in the category of a publisher, giving them protection under the ambit of the First Amendment of its control over the material which are disseminated in their platform.

“This identity has allowed it to justify moderation and removal of content. Conspicuously in India, however, it has chosen to identify itself purely as a social media platform, despite its similar functions and services in the two countries,” the bench said.

The apex court said that dependent on the nature of controversy, Facebook having almost identical reach to population of different countries seeks to modify its stand depending upon its suitability and convenience.

“We are afraid we are not inclined to accept the simplistic approach sought to be canvassed on the role of Facebook. Forceful as it may be, it does not convince us. Developments around the world reflect rising concerns across borders.”

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