Don't swipe next! We write to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for sustained hearings and an international human rights audit of Facebook India

There has been an alarming press report published in the Wall Street Journal on August 14, 2020 titled, “Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide with Indian Politics”. It merits urgent intervention and investigation into human rights breaches by Facebook India.

17 August, 2020
4 min read


There has been an alarming press report published in the Wall Street Journal on August 14, 2020 titled, “Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide with Indian Politics” authored by Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz [“WSJ Story”]. It presents a journalistic investigation into the role of specific officials at Facebook India who have applied content moderation policies in a partisan manner enabling hate speech. We worry this is a larger pattern that has implications for the safety of citizens and the health of Indian democracy. Today, we wrote to the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology for urgent steps including summons to it's top global executives, extensive hearings and an international human rights audit leading to reparations for victims.

Partisan enforcement on hate speech

Over years accusations have often emerged from persons across the political spectrum but their impact is most often greater on persons which lack power. It is estimated that Facebook has close to 300 million users in India and is its largest global market. It has massive reach, economic and social power to cause impact. While such social networks facilitate and further the ability for users to avail their rights to free expression which is a goal to be protected, we are often confronted with harms caused by them. This requires systemic fixes and actual accountability to be fixed in a manner which is transparent, proportional and certain.

To us, there are two issues to be considered as per the WSJ Story. The first is the core claim made in which a specific instance of hate speech made by a politician is reported and a content review decision on it is influenced by senior staff in Facebook India. This points to worrying issues of trust not only in the content review and moderation practices but the role of individual assessments and the role played by the staff at Facebook India. We acknowledge that assessments are often contextual and subjective. Further, there may be space for genuine errors or omissions however urgent steps which must be taken to ensure trust, credibility in processes of content review. For a more detailed analysis of this, we would specifically like to draw reference to the Equality Labs : Facebook India Report 2019 (link) which has stated that, “[t]he authors warn that without urgent intervention, such hate speech is likely to be weaponized as a trigger for large-scale communal violence in India.

Threats to democracy

The second core claim in the WSJ Story is with regard to Facebook India’s press releases on content takedowns during the 2019 general elections which display a partisan slant. We are concerned whether such practices extended to it’s content review itself. The specific event averted are content takedowns Facebook’s newsroom reported on April 1, 2019 that it undertook the removal of two separate and unrelated networks of pages, groups and accounts that engaged in “coordinated unauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram” (link). As noted in the WSJ Report, there was the mention of one political party only despite a clear inference as to the source of the second network being another political party. Here, the lack of accountability and transparency by Facebook is glaring. There are no sources to corroborate the facts put out as to whether the reasons behind these takedowns are legitimate.

At present the response from Facebook Inc. and Facebook India has been disappointing. They have in press statements indicated that they are working on, “regular audits”, and seeking to improve their “internal processes”. These are vague, non-commitments for redressal and will lead to continuing harms to the close to 300 million users of Facebook in India. These are similar to vague responses similar to when the Cambridge Analytica case first came to light on which there has been little or no outcome. We had referred to specific interventions which need to be considered in this regard inter alia by correspondence dated February 25, 2019.

Steps to be taken

We believe that content moderation and platform governance are complex issues. They consider values of free expression and the limits to them. While awaiting the creation of institutional change and processes that advance these values as per the Constitution of India, urgent steps are required in the interim to fix accountability and prevent further harm. To take this demand forward today we wrote to the Standing Committee on Information Technology recommending that they hold a hearing within the topic of, "‘Safeguarding citizens’ data on social/online news media platforms’".

We suggest the following actions that may be considered by it in its  engagement with Facebook Inc. and Facebook India:

  1. Open a hearing with Facebook Global : Summons must be issued to senior management of Facebook Inc. which oversee the operations of Facebook India to participate in the proceedings of this Ld. Committee.
  2. Suggest a international human rights audit : Facebook Inc. must take urgent and immediate action as necessary to conduct a full human rights audit of its India operations as conducted as per the report released on July 8, 2020 (link). This process is distinct from regular audits must be established by Facebook Inc. through its global offices that are outside the influence of Facebook India to maintain the safety and trust in this process and its outcomes. Further, there must be a focus on independence, impartiality and transparency with regular updates on progress. To clarify, this full report must be made publicly available as per a similar model adopted for the report released on July 8, 2020.
  3. Reparations for victims : Facebook Inc. must consider financial reparations for victims of hate speech in India for any specific instances identified by the global audit. This must encompass physical and mental suffering. Further, since this damage is not economically quantifiable, the assessment must be made in equity. Here we would like to make reference to the practitioners guide on, “The Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Gross Human Rights Violations” published by the International Commission of Jurists in 2018 (link).

Important Documents

  1. Representation to Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT regarding the WSJ Story on Facebook India dated August 17, 2020 (link)
  2. Link to the WSJ Story dated August 14, 2020 (link)
  3. Study by Equality Labs on Hatespeech and Facebook India in 2019 (link)
  4. Facebook Inc. Civil Rights Audit Report dated July 8, 2020 (link)

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