Social networking site Facebook on Monday told the Bombay High Court that it was voluntarily launching tools to enhance transparency in political advertising policies that will be in place from February 21, ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice N M Jamdar were hearing a petition filed by Pune-based lawyer Sagar Suryavanshi, seeking directions to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to restrain from any form of advertisements, videos or messages, 48 hours before the election.
The petition also demands regulation of the social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and internet giant Google, during the no-campaign period before voting begins.
In an affidavit filed by Sandeep Solanki, Power of Attorney Holder for Facebook, it has been stated that in an effort to combat foreign interference, only authorised advertisers will be allowed to purchase political ads.
“Anyone who wants to run a political ad in India will need to first confirm her/his identity and location, and give details about who placed the ad,” states the affidavit.
Passport, pan card, driving licence or election card will be required to confirm identity and residential addresses. The affidavit further states that in an effort to increase transparency, Facebook has published its advertising policy and voluntarily adopted transparency tools with regard to political ads.
Facebook’s ad policy regarding issues of political or national importance states that, “Advertiser can run political, election-related and issue ads, provided advertiser complies with all applicable laws and the authorisation process required by Facebook.” It also states that failure to comply may result in a variety of consequences, including cancellation of ads and termination of the account.
The affidavit further states that political advertisements will include prominent disclaimers that are visible to users, who will be able to view details such as who published and/or paid for the ad, giving users more information about who is responsible for the ads they see.
The affidavit adds that by March 2019, Facebook will create a public library of political ads that will remain for seven years and will contain detailed information on each ad.
Senior counsel Darius Khambata, appearing for Facebook, also told the court that “they were not an apparatus but a platform”. Even if Section 126 of the Representation of People Act, 1951, (prohibiting any public meetings and processions in connection with the election or display for the public any election matter during the 48 hours black-out period) did not include Facebook, they were voluntarily implementing policies and due diligence was being given to help protect the integrity of election, adding that any direction from the Election Commissioner will be maintained.
Another affidavit filed by R Suresh Babu, authorised signatory for Google, said it “supported responsible political advertising and expected all political advertisements and destinations to comply with local campaign and election laws for any areas they target”. Given the importance of ensuring a free and fair election in India, Google has a well-placed mechanism in place to report advertisement or content that violated local laws, added Babu.
Senior counsel Iqbal Chagla for Google told the court that before a political advertisement could be placed on Google’s network, it will require the advertiser to submit pre-certificates issued by the ECI. Chagla added that no ads will be accepted during the silence period (48 hours before election).