Platforms like Facebook should remain accountable: Supreme Court

Observing that social media platforms like Facebook are power centres with ability to influence public opinions, the Supreme Court on Thursday said they must be held accountable for spreading disruptive messages or hate speeches.

The SC dismissing the plea filed by Facebook India VP and MD Ajit Mohan and others challenging the summons by the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and harmony committee, stressed that ”unity in diversity” of India cannot be disrupted. “This cannot be disrupted at any cost or under any professed freedom by Facebook claiming ignorance or lack of any pivotal role,” the court said.

The SC defending Delhi Assembly’s right to summon, said while the social media giant has played a crucial role in enabling free speech by providing a voice to voiceless and a means to get away with state censorship, it cannot overlook the fact that it has concurrently become a “platform for disruptive messages, voices, and ideologies.”

Facebook, which has almost 270 million users in India, has to remain accountable to those who entrust it with such power, it added.

“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,” the court said.

While dealing with the Delhi Legislative Assembly controversy, a bench led by Justice SK Kaul held that the committee has the power to compel attendance of members and outsiders on grounds of its privilege.

The SC acknowledging the distribution of power, said although law and order and police do not fall under the legislative jurisdiction of Delhi Assembly, in the larger context the concept of peace and harmony goes much beyond that.

However, it said that Facebook’s representative would have the right to not answer questions directly covered by these two fields in any case.

In its 188-page verdict, the bench said that members and non-members can equally be directed to appear before the committee and depose on oath and the social media giant cannot excuse itself to appear pursuant to the new summons issued to them on 3 February 2021.

The SC observing Facebook plays a significant role in giving a voice to various sections of society worldwide, said that it has to be taken into account that this platform has also allowed disruptive voices filled 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”.”

The court further noted that in this technological age, it would be “too simplistic” for the petitioners to maintain that they are only a platform for exchange of ideas without performing any major role themselves.

It said that election process, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by “social media manipulation” and these platforms can be “imminently uncontrollable at times” and have their own challenges.

The Supreme Court said that information outbreak in this digital age is capable to create new challenges that are deviously modulating the debate on issues where public opinions can be broadly divided and successful functioning of a democracy can only be ensured when it’s citizens are able to make informed decisions.

Justices Kaul, Maheshwari and Roy said the social media giant earlier has acknowledged to SC that they had removed 22.5 million posts of hate speech content in the second quarter of 2020, which shows that they use a substantial control over the content that is enabled to be circulate on its platform. “To that extent, a parallel may be drawn with editorial responsibility cast on other mass circulation media,” the court noted.

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