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Can’t be forced to appear before Delhi Assembly panel: Facebook tells SC


New Delhi: Facebook India on Thursday strongly opposed notices issued by a Delhi Assembly panel asking its executives to come and depose before it on the Delhi riots, insisting in the Supreme Court that it had a right to hold its silence and not get drawn into any politically polarised narratives on the riots.

The Peace and Harmony committee issued two notices to Facebook India VP Ajit Mohan to appear before it and suggest solutions to the problems posed by hate speech amid the backdrop of the Delhi riots. One was issued on Sept 10 and another 20, 2020.

Appearing for Facebook India, senior advocate Harish Salve said that Facebook’s objection was a “conscientious” one. “The notices are not against individuals but against Facebook India Online Services. We don’t want to speak on whether anything is hate speech or civil speech,” he said.

He said that the panel can ask Facebook to appear but not compel it.

“We retain our right to be silent,” he said. “If we don’t turn up the panel can only criticise our action, but not invoke privilege against us.” Salve said that Facebook was also questioning the limits of the jurisdiction of the Delhi Assembly on the issue.

“There is a parliamentary standing committee on Information technology. The IT Act is a parliamentary legislation. We have permission to work in India. They can block our access. If they ask us to go, we go. If the committee asks us to appear before it, we will have to go. We are there. This cannot be used as an estoppel to force us to appear before an Assembly panel,” he argued.

Salve said that the company was subject to the statutory scheme that mandates it to take down “hateful” content under court orders and allows a person to file an FIR in a police station against any such content.

But House privilege, which allows a House to function smoothly, cannot be used to either summon third parties or non-members or take away their right to free speech. In any case, he suggested, the panel cannot be said to be part of the House and hence be empowered to invoke privilege.

He told the three-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul that the panel had in its first meeting in August observed that Facebook was only removing messages of harmony and not hateful content and had warned of a supplementary chargesheet arraigning it as an accused in the riots.

He also alleged that the notices had been issued after a Wall Street Journal article alleging that Ankhi Das, then policy head of Facebook India and South Asia, had a pro-government agenda. He said that the IT Act already had enough provisions to tackle hateful content. “What recommendations does this committee wish to put forward?”

The arguments in the case were inconclusive at the end of the court hours and would be carried on next on Jan 27, 2021.

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