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Facebook lacking India-specific hate speech norms is worrying

Facebook India public policy director Shivnath Thukral on Thursday appeared before the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee in connection with the 2020 Delhi riots and told the committee members that Facebook doesn’t have explicit India-specific guidelines around hate speech. Instead, he said, the social media giant uses global community standards to identify and curtain hate speech in India, and that the mechanism is robust enough to deal with local issues.

The Delhi govt committee is probing how social media was used to spread communal messages before and around the riots. While Facebook representatives, including managing director Ajit Mohan, were first called for a hearing last year, Facebook challenged the summon. The matter, after a lengthy tussle in the court, was decided by the Supreme Court (SC) recently. The SC directed that Facebook representatives must appear in front of the committee.

On Thursday the committee, chaired by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Raghav Chadha, sought to know if Facebook has any Indian-specific law pertaining to hate speech. Thukral noted that Facebook community standards are applied across the world and that they are applicable in the context of India. He also noted that the standards keep evolving. He noted that caste slurs were not part of hate speech some years back but that has changed now.

After a series of questions, Chadha noted that it is worrying that there is no static definition of hate speech specific to the Indian context. “For the committee to dive deep into this, it needs a foundation of a definition. If we do not have a foundation of a definition, it certainly prohibits us from proceeding,” said Chadha.

“It is deeply worrying for me as a chairman of the committee to note that there is no stand-alone, individual definition of hate speech in the Indian context alone. The kind of impression that I have drawn from your responses is that there perhaps is a global definition along with the community standards that you have given but that definition, as well as the community standards, apply to all jurisdictions. There is no India-specific jurisdiction from where you derive 40 per cent of your users,” said Chadha.

The AAP leader noted that what could be hate speech in the US, the UK and Australia might not be hate speech in India. “In fact, what may be hate speech in Pakistan may not be hate speech in India — a market that has 40 per cent of your users,” he said.

Thukral maintained that community standards are a reflection of local laws as well and “if and when certain situations are brought to our notice, we review our policies.”

Thukral noted that what is happening on the platform is happening in the real world. He noted that Facebook is a means for people to express themselves and build communities and for like-minded people to empower small businesses. He noted that social media is being held responsible for “issues that run deeper into the society.” He referred to the recent global debate and noted that Facebook cannot be subjected to unfair trials based on “selectively leaked documents painting false patterns of our company.”

The Delhi Assembly has so far heard seven witnesses while looking into the role of social media in connection with the Delhi riots that claimed over 50 lives and injured hundreds.

Facebook has increasingly come under fire in several countries, including India, for how it has allowed inflammatory messages and content to spread on its website. Various rights groups, as well as organisations associated with United Nations, have slammed the company for not doing enough to curtain hate messages in sensitive areas. In particular, Facebook’s role in fuelling religious strife in Myanmar has come under intense scrutiny.

According to leaked documents, which Thukral called “selective”in Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook has also been used by many, including politicians or politically-connected groups and individuals, in India to spread anti-minority messaging. The reports have noted that even when Facebook was aware of misuse of its platform, on many occasions it simply turned a blind and did not act against users who were utilising its tools to spread hate messages.

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