GovChat heads to tribunal over WhatsApp de-platforming threat - TechCentral

GovChat heads to tribunal over WhatsApp de-platforming threat

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The founder and CEO of government’s citizen engagement platform on WhatsApp, known as GovChat, is seeking urgent interim relief against Facebook at the Competition Tribunal after the social media giant allegedly threatened to pull the service off its WhatsApp platform.

Eldrid Jordaan is seeing the urgent relief against Facebook in the US, WhatsApp in the US and Facebook South Africa. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook.

“The applicants, GovChat (Pty) Ltd and Hashtag Letstalk (Pty) Ltd, are asking the tribunal to interdict and restrain Facebook/WhatsApp from removing (“offboarding”) them from the WhatsApp platform pending the outcome of a complaint which they submitted to the Competition Commission,” the Competition Tribunal said.

“This follows threats by Facebook to remove GovChat from the WhatsApp platform due to an alleged violation of the contractual terms of use,” it said.

GovChat was launched in 2018 under the department of cooperative governance & traditional affairs. It offers a “chatbot” on WhatsApp that is used by government to engage with citizens. It was created to allow the department to “monitor and evaluate provinces’ and municipalities’ service delivery, response times, failures and successes, and corruption, in real time”.

“After the Covid-19 outbreak, GovChat diverted (its focus) to assisting the government with Covid-19 education and awareness, symptom tracking, the provision of test results, and enabling citizens to apply for urgent social relief grants and distress grants.”

In breach?

Facebook, the tribunal said, has accused GovChat of breaching the terms of use of the WhatsApp Business application programming interface (API) in “pursuit of commercial interests”. GovChat, however, said it operates within WhatsApp’s terms of use and has “never intentionally misrepresented its position”. It added that it has acted in good faith in all times”.

By removing GovChat from WhatsApp’s API, it will no longer be able to “render services to the government and citizens at the height of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa and will force the applicants out of business”.

The tribunal will hear the case via an online hearing on Wednesday, 13 January.

GovChat’s Jordaan couldn’t immediately be reached on his mobile phone on Tuesday for comment. – © 2021 NewsCentral Media

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