The Centre on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter cannot be made accountable to state Assemblies and that a “national response” was required to address the “uncontrollable global problem” emerging from them, Live Law reported.
“By the nature of this problem, this has to be examined on a national level,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta informed the court. “We cannot have 20 committees looking into what can be done.”
A bench of Justices SK Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy was hearing a plea by Facebook India head Ajit Mohan challenging the summons issued to him on September 10 and September 18 by Delhi Legislative Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the communal violence that hit the Capital in February 2020.
In his plea, Mohan had argued that the committee does not have the jurisdiction on the matter and that the relevant powers were vested with Parliament. Mehta, in his submission, supported his stand.
“Summons dated September 10, 2020, and September 18, 2020, issued by the state committee, fall outside the scope of powers conferred upon the state Legislative Assembly as per the scheme of the Constitution relatable to the state of Delhi,” Mehta said, according to Bar and Bench. He referred to subjects listed under the Union list in the Constitution and said that the “field is fully occupied by the Parliament”.
“Please look at the statement of objects and reasons of IT Act which excludes any kind of interference by Assembly,” Mehta contented.
The solicitor general, however, submitted that social media platforms had the “powers to de-stabilise a country” and the “propensity to create law and order problems”, according to the Hindustan Times.
Maheshwari asked Mehta if the Delhi Assembly, apart from not having powers under Police, law and order and land, was capable of summoning an individual for discussing a subject, Bar and Bench reported. To this, the solicitor general held that it was not desirable for the states to discuss on matters under the Union List.
“[Suppose] Parliament comes out with an atomic policy which may have impact on public health,” Mehta argued. “Now 28 [state] Assemblies cannot then discuss about atomic policy and its impact.”
The matter will next be heard on February 24.
The matter so far
The Peace and Harmony Committee had asked Mohan to appear for questioning on September 23 last year – a second round of summons – over allegations that the social media giant’s laxity in applying hate speech rules and policies contributed to the February 2020 violence. At least 53 people were killed and scores injured in the violence that rocked North East Delhi.
Mohan had not appeared for the first round, when the committee summoned him on September 12, following an August 14 report in The Wall Street Journal that Facebook’s India policy head Ankhi Das had opposed removing incendiary posts by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders during the violence.
After the panel summoned him the second time and said that his non-appearance would be treated as breach of privilege, the Facebook executive moved the Supreme Court. On September 23, the Supreme court ordered the Delhi Assembly panel to not take any coercive action against Mohan till October 15.
The legislative Assembly responded to Mohan’s plea, arguing that he cannot claim the right to remain silent as no coercive action was taken nor is intended to be taken merely if he appears before the Peace and Harmony Committee. On February 4, the Assembly issued a fresh notice to Facebook India, asking a “senior competent person”, if not Mohan, to appear and testify before the committee.