Ajit Mohan v. Legislative Assembly National Capital of Delhi

The Cyber Blog IndiaCase Summary

Whether a State Legislative Assembly's Committee can validly issue summons to Facebook

Ajit Mohan v. Legislative Assembly National Capital of Delhi
In the Supreme Court of India
WP(C) 1088/2020
Before Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, and Justice Hrishikesh Roy
Decided on July 8, 2021

Relevancy of the case: Whether a State Legislative Assembly’s Committee can validly issue summons to Facebook

Statutes and Provisions Involved

  • The Information Technology Act, 2000 (Section 2, 67)
  • The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Section 120B, 499)
  • The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991 (Sections 18, 37)
  • The Constitution of India, 1950 (Article 32, 194(3), 293AA, 368)

Relevant Facts of the Case

  • There was a communal riot in Delhi in February 2020, causing damage to life and property. The Delhi Legislative Assembly constituted a Committee on Peace and Harmony. The Committee held that it received thousands of complaints suggesting the role of Facebook in the communal riots. A Wall Street Journal article further fuelled this incident.
  • The petitioner is the Vice President and Managing Director of Facebook India Online Services Pvt. Ltd. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT issued a notice requesting the petitioner to appear before the Committee. He complied with this notice, and after understanding Facebook’s business interests, the Committee wished to have the company as a co-accused in the case. The Assembly issued the petitioner a notice for appearance (“First Impugned Summons”) as Facebook had not responded.
  • Facebook sent a reply emphasising that Facebook’s internal policies protect user safety and security. Dissatisfied with the response, the Committee issued a Second Impugned Summons. This case challenges the validity of this summons. 

Prominent Arguments by the Advocates 

The petitioner’s counsel:

  • He argued that the object of the summons was to add Facebook to the chargesheet. Being a US-based intermediary, it cannot be tried in India. He argues that the party, as non-members, could receive a summons only if they had disrupted any proceeding.
  • He argues that Article 212, read with the GNCTD Act, does not prohibit judicial scrutiny over the proceedings. He stated that privilege power couldn’t compel speech. He stated that the power of the Committee comes not from a constitutional provision but a statutory one.
  • Therefore, the power needs to be checked on whether they breach fundamental rights. In the context of the role of intermediaries in law-and-order problems, the counsel contended that Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 covers this aspect. He also argued the legislative domains of “public order” and “police” stood outside the competence of the Assembly.
  • He also pointed out that the Assembly must limit itself to its function of legislation. Even if it were to summon a witness, this must be in matters within its ambit.
  • The petitioner’s counsel further argued that Facebook would come under the applicability of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Examining Facebook is not within jurisdiction, as its operations fell under Entry 31, List I, covering “other forms of communication”. It was also argued that Facebook had no control over the information hosted on it.

The respondent’s counsel:

  • He submitted that the circumstances to argue privilege have not arisen. They urged that such arguments would destroy the existing committees. The Committee’s proceedings are House proceedings, so judicial scrutiny is unwarranted. 
  • Also, people do not have the liberty to selectively appear in meetings that they wish to. The counsel also stated that no precedent has had a court intervening in the summoning of a witness by the legislature. He further contended that the facts for summoning were without basis and had not breached any fundamental right. The counsel also argued that the legislature’s role is not legislating alone.
  • The counsel further argued that even a threat to fundamental rights can be a reason to use Article 32 to approach the court. In this case, the threat was to Articles 14, 19 and 21. Continuing the arguments, he stated that citizens can utilise only Article 19, and Article 32 would also not be applicable when they issued the summons to a corporation.
  • The counsel also submitted that the Information Technology Act, 2000 was an example of “cooperative federalism” as it empowered the State and the Centre in terms of “appropriate government” given in Section 2(e). Thus, provisions such as Sections 6 and 69 of the IT Act could refer to either the Centre or the State.

Opinion of the Bench

  • Compelling attendance before the Committee is an essential power and is part of its functions. They only issued a summons for the same, and thus, no exercise of privilege is demonstrated.
  • On fundamental rights, the bench agrees that the petitioner has a right to remain silent. Regarding legislative competence, the bench agrees that cooperative federalism is essential and the Assembly’s role goes beyond legislation. However, the Union possesses powers conferred by Entries 1, 2, and 18 in List II, and the Assembly cannot assume them.
  • Even though Article 212 is in place, many widely appreciate a narrow judicial review. Facebook cannot excuse itself from appearing under the New Summons since areas that are not otherwise available to the legislature may be available to a committee for its deliberations.
  • The terms of reference stating the objectives of the Committee are incorrect in the second object, which is to recommend action against offenders. This is because it is a police function. However, they issued the new summons by eliminating all fallacies; thus, it must be adhered to. Also, the acts of the committee hint at a motive to incriminate Facebook. 

Final Decision

  • The bench dismissed the writ petition.

Julia Anna Joseph, an undergraduate student at Christ (Deemed to be University), prepared this case summary during her internship with The Cyber Blog India in January/February 2022.