A committee of lawmakers on Tuesday said Facebook was in contempt of the Delhi assembly, and gave the social media company a “final warning” to heed to summons to appear before it, while dismissing a letter sent by the executives of the firm declining to make themselves available.
In the letter, Facebook’s director (trust and safety) Vikram Langer told the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi assembly that the company’s India head, Ajit Mohan, could not appear before the panel because it was already deposing before a parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, and contended that the firm‘s content regulation was outside the jurisdiction of the state assembly.
The committee’s head, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Raghav Chadha, rejected the contention, saying the state legislative functions are independent of the parliamentary functions, and Facebook’s stance went against India’s federal structure.
“The Delhi legislative committee is operating in its constitutionally lawful jurisdiction and does not conflict or weaken the jurisdiction of the Central government on similar issues,” he said.
He added that if the company does not heed to the next summons, the committee “shall be constrained to invoke its power to initiate breach of privilege proceedings”, including penalties.
While the committee is looking into possible inaction by Facebook in screening inflammatory posts before and during the Delhi riots in February, the developments came on a day when reports suggested that the company’s services may have also been misused for possible interference in the Delhi assembly elections around the same time.
This prompted the assembly committee to club the two issues together.
The decision of Facebook India’s Mohan not to appear as a witness “is contempt of the Delhi legislative assembly and disregard of the Assembly’s privilege. The indifference exhibited by the representative of the Facebook India is also a contempt to the people of Delhi who have reposed their faith in the committee to examine the current issue,” Chadha said.
The MLA also read out portions of the Facebook letter, which he described as “interesting”, in response to the panel’s September 10 summons. In it, Facebook cited two grounds to state that the Delhi Assembly had no jurisdiction over its content regulation.
“As you are well aware, the regulation of intermediaries like Facebook falls within the exclusive authority of the Union of India and in exercise of this power to regulate ‘communications’, the Parliament has enacted the Information Technology Act, 2000. Further, the subject of ‘law and order’ in the National Capital Territory of Delhi also fall within the exclusive domain of the Union of India,” the company said.
But, Chadha said, that the “proceedings before Parliament are in no way connected to the role of Facebook in the north-east Delhi riots. The notice of appearance issued to Facebook is directly related to the riots, whereas the proceedings in the Parliament are on the subject of ‘safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space”.
HT reviewed the September 10 summons by the Assembly committee, which stated: “Pertinently, the committee has received numerous complaints alleging inter alia intentional omission and deliberate inaction on the part of social media platform Facebook to apply hate speech rule and policies which has allegedly led to serious repercussions and disruption of peace and harmony across the NCT of Delhi.”
Experts said no rule exempts private companies from the mandatory nature of such summons.
“It is true that a Delhi Assembly panel, because of the nature of Delhi’s own limited constitutional rights, does not technically have the power to summon even the Delhi police commissioner because the Delhi Police comes under the Centre’s jurisdiction through the LG. However, when it comes to appearing before the panel, no rule states that representatives of a private firm cannot be summoned,” said SK Sharma, former secretary of the Lok Sabha and Delhi assembly.
He added the findings of the inquiries of the committees are “reccomendary in nature”.
“They submit it to the Speaker, who in turn submits it to the government, and it is up to the government what it wants to do with it. In this case, even if the government forwards it to the Delhi Police, the recommendations may not be executed, unless it comes from the LG,” he added.
Another constitutional expert who did not wish to be named called Facebook’s contention that it won’t appear before the assembly panel because a parliamentary standing committee is already looking into the matter as “frivolous”.
“Facebook’s justification is frivolous because there is no bar on two committees of the Parliament and the state legislature examining the same matter. If the subjects are different then the company’s plea does not stand at all,” this person said.
A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to emails, text messages and calls for comment.
(With inputs from Binayak Dasgupta)