Delhi can’t afford riots like in Feb 2020, Facebook role must be looked into: Supreme Court

It emphasised the “necessity of greater accountability by… (social media) intermediaries which” it said “have become big business corporations with influence across borders and over millions of people”.

Underlining that “the capital of the country can ill-afford any repetition” of an occurrence like the February 2020 riots, the Supreme Court Thursday came down heavily on social media platform Facebook, saying its role “in this context must be looked into by the powers that be” and this was why it had been summoned by the Delhi Assembly.

The bench of Justices S K Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy, ruling on a plea challenging summons issued to Facebook by a committee of the Delhi Assembly, said “while Facebook has played a crucial role in enabling free speech by providing a voice to the voiceless and a means to escape state censorship”, the court “cannot lose sight of the fact that it has simultaneously become a platform for disruptive messages, voices, and ideologies”.

It did not accept Facebook’s argument that it is “merely a platform posting third party information and has no role in generating, controlling or modulating” information.

India’s population, the bench said, 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’” and “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.”

It said Facebook has about 2.85 billion monthly active users — over a third of the world population — as of March 2021. It also has about 270 million registered users in India.

The bench said “such vast powers must necessarily come with responsibility. Entities like Facebook have to remain accountable to those who entrust them with such power”.

Disruptive voices replete with misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook, the bench said, have had a direct impact on vast areas of subject matter which ultimately affect the governance of states, and “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.”

It pointed to the contradictory stands of Facebook in different jurisdictions. For example, in the US, Facebook projected itself in the category of a publisher, giving it protection under the ambit of the First Amendment of its control over material disseminated in the platform which in turn allows 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. Thus, 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,” it said.

The bench pointed out that “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”.

It emphasised the “necessity of greater accountability by… (social media) intermediaries which” it said “have become big business corporations with influence across borders and over millions of people”.

It said “the immense power that platforms like Facebook wield has stirred a debate not only in our country, but across the world. The endeavour has been to draw a line between tackling hate speech and fake news on the one hand and suppressing legitimate speech which may make those in power uncomfortable, on the other. This delicate balance has thus far only been maintained by the intermediaries by being value-neutral.”

“The significance of this is all the more in a democracy which itself rests on certain core values. This unprecedented degree of influence necessitates safeguards and caution in consonance with democratic values. Platforms and intermediaries must subserve the principal objective as a valuable tool for public good upholding democratic values,” it said.

The bench said “internationally, Facebook has had to recognise its role in failing to prevent division and incitement of offline violence in the context of the stated ethnic cleansing in Myanmar where a crescendo of misinformation and posts, somehow missed by Facebook employees, helped fuel the violence” and that “the platform similarly apologised for its lack of serious response to evident signs of abuse of the platform in Sri Lanka, which again is stated to have stoked widespread violence in 2018 in the country and had to acknowledge its need to be regulated though the exact method is still unclear and a prerogative of law making authority”.

The bench said “successful functioning of a liberal democracy can only be ensured when citizens are able to make informed decisions” which “have to be made keeping in mind a plurality of perspectives and ideas”.

The explosion of information in the digital age, it said, “is capable of creating new challenges that are insidiously modulating the debate on issues where opinions can be vastly divided. Thus, while social media, on the one hand, is enhancing equal and open dialogue between citizens and policy makers; on the other hand, it has become a tool in the hands of various interest groups who have recognised its disruptive potential”.

This, it said, “results in a paradoxical outcome where extremist views are peddled into the mainstream, thereby spreading misinformation. Established independent democracies are seeing the effect of such ripples across the globe and are concerned. Election and voting processes, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation. This has given rise to significant debates about the increasing concentration of power in platforms like Facebook, more so as they are said to employ business models that are privacy-intrusive and attention soliciting”.

Referring to “post-truth” debate in the context of Brexit and the US Presidential elections, the bench said that “the obfuscation of facts, abandonment of evidentiary standards in reasoning, and outright lying in the public sphere left many aghast. A lot of blame was sought to be placed at the door of social media, it being a source of this evolving contemporary phenomenon where objective truth is becoming a commodity with diminishing value”.

Therefore, the bench said, it is “difficult to accept the simplistic approach adopted by Facebook — that it is merely a platform posting third party information and has no role in generating, controlling or modulating that information”.

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