The Supreme Court on Thursday asked Facebook India Vice President and Managing Director Ajit Mohan to appear before the Delhi Legislative Assembly Committee of Peace and Harmony, which is conducting an inquiry into the communal violence that hit the capital in February 2020, reported The Times of India.

Mohan approached the court against the summons issued to him by the panel. In his petition, Mohan contended that the committee had no authority to compel him to appear before it as the matter had already been taken up by a parliamentary panel.

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy said that social media platforms have the potential to influence users and discussions on platforms like Facebook may have a polarising effect. “Less informed individuals may not verify the information and take it as gospel of truth,” the court said.

The judges said that the Delhi Assembly does have the power to form a committee to examine the February 2020 violence in the Capital, but the panel could not act like a prosecuting agency, reported Bar and Bench.

The court ruled that Facebook’s plea against the summons from the Assembly panel was premature as nothing had happened apart from the notices being sent to appear before the committee.

“Investigation of a socially complicated problem too is under its [Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee] domain,” the Supreme Court said.

However, the court said that a representative of Facebook can refuse to answer any questions of the Assembly committee if it comes within a domain that is prohibited.

“The statements made in the press conference by respondents were hardly conducive to the proceedings before the committee,” the court said, according to Bar and Bench. “It was said Facebook with vested interest in Delhi riots.... these statements should not have been made and can give rise to apprehension in mind of petitioner.”

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology had summoned officials of Facebook India and Google India on June 29 to discuss the rights of social media users and prevention of misuse of the platforms. The parliamentary panel is headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.

In June, the panel had also met representatives of Twitter India for a discussion on the same agenda. Twitter officials were told that the social media platform should abide by Indian laws.

The case

The Peace and Harmony Committee had asked Mohan to appear for questioning on September 23 – 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 former Facebook India Public Policy head Ankhi Das had opposed removing incendiary posts by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders during the violence.

After the panel summoned him for 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 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.