Two Rohingya refugees on Tuesday urged the Delhi High Court to act against the alleged propagation and promotion of hate speech against the community by social media giant Facebook and prevent the “possible escalation” of violence against them. The senior counsel appearing for the petitioners contended that the government should intervene but the court struck a note of caution on seeking “state censorship” as a remedy.
The counsel claimed that the “ecosystem” of the platform “magnified” hate speech through its “algorithm” to enhance its business, an allegation that was strongly rejected by the senior advocate representing Facebook.
Senior advocate Arvind Datar, appearing for Facebook, said while substantial work has already been done by the platform following consultations with the Centre to prevent any abuse on its platform, completely stopping hate speech is not possible as “intermediaries can’t be super censors”.
In the public interest litigation (PIL), Mohammad Hamim and Kawsar Mohammed contended that there was a duty on the government to intervene and work against the “systematic hate speech” on the social media platform.
A bench headed by Acting Chief Justice Manmohan remarked that the prevalence of abuse on social media cannot be denied but questioned the maintainability of a writ petition on the issue, saying such “serious allegations” have to be proved through evidence, which can be only be done in a suit.
The court further asked the petitioner if pre-censorship on content and proposed government intervention was an “appropriate” relief.
“You can’t be selective. If you are saying that State can do censorship then you will have to give them all the power and they will love it,” the bench, also comprising Justice Manmeet PS Arora, said.
“You find a lot of abuse. But the remedy that you are saying, is it appropriate or excessive? There has to be a balance,” asked the bench.
The court also observed that while there was “enough infrastructure already available” in law, the PIL was filed without the petitioner approaching the government or Facebook with respect to its grievance under the applicable Information Technology (IT) Rules.
“He has not approached the Union, he has not approached you (Facebook)… First you have to follow the mechanism. There is a grievance redressal mechanism… Someone has not read the (IT) Act or the Rules before filing it. Someone has done (the filing) in ignorance of that,” the court remarked.
Observing that nothing could be deleted permanently in the “digital world” which was a “complicated ecosystem”, the court said it would pass an order on the PIL.
The court orally indicated that it would either ask the petitioners to make a representation to the government or approach Facebook’s grievance official as per the IT Rules.
“Today, it is one community; tomorrow, there may be others. The fact that there is abuse on social media cannot be denied. He (petitioners) wants a perfect system. It is an illusion,” said Justice Manmohan.
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the petitioners, claimed that there were several reports on the role played by Facebook in “promoting” hate speech on its platform and the present PIL sought relief beyond merely taking down the offending links.
“It is a system in the organisation, algorithm in the organisation which allows hate speech against Rohingyas and hate speech in general to flourish on the platform. It magnifies hate speech…Facebook actively intervenes to magnify and spread what might have been innocuous (in terms of its reach). Hate speech is active propaganda,” he alleged.
The petitioners prayed for several directions in the PIL, including the appointment of trained human moderators for the platform and replacing the “ranking system” that “gives priority” to hate speech content on Facebook with a “chronological system”.
Appearing for Facebook, Datar opposed the petition and said the offending posts mentioned in the PIL have already been taken down.
He claimed that substantial work has already been done by the platform to prevent any abuse on its platform pursuant to consultations with the Centre.
Datar further contended that an aggrived party was at liberty to take recourse to the framework under the IT Rules which has provided a grievance redressal officer as well as an appellate authority.
“There can’t be a remedy in rem. Completely stopping hate speech is not possible. Intermediaries can’t be super censors. You are going into dangerous territory,” cautioned the senior lawyer.
It was also contended that pre-censorship by Facebook which has over 2 billion users worldwide and having human moderators could not be done.
“This is not a relief that the court will grant and why just Facebook? What about YouTube? TV channels?” Datar questioned.
The petitioners, in the PIL, said they were invoking Article 21 of the Indian Constitution seeking protection of the Right to life of the Rohingya community in Delhi and throughout the country.
The plea claimed the refugees faced violence as a result of the dissemination of violent, hateful remarks targeting them on the basis of their ethnicity and religion on Facebook.