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Tribunal is asked to restrain Facebook and WhatsApp from removing GovChat from the WhatsApp platform

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Tribunal is asked to restrain Facebook and WhatsApp from removing GovChat from the WhatsApp platform

Tribunal is asked to restrain Facebook and WhatsApp  from removing GovChat from the WhatsApp platform
Photo by Supplied by Competition Tribunal

12th January 2021

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/ MEDIA STATEMENT / The content on this page is not written by Polity.org.za, but is supplied by third parties. This content does not constitute news reporting by Polity.org.za.

The proceedings will be heard virtually (online) as follows: Date: Wednesday, 13 January 2021 Time: 10h00am
 
Those wishing to follow the online proceedings should contact the Tribunal’s Communications Officer (contact details below)

The founder and CEO of the government’s citizen engagement platform on WhatsApp, known as GovChat, has brought an urgent application to the Tribunal for interim relief against Facebook Inc., WhatsApp Inc., and Facebook South Africa (Pty) Ltd.
 
The Applicants, GovChat (Pty) Ltd (GovChat) and Hashtag Letstalk (Pty) Ltd (#LetsTalk) are asking the Tribunal to interdict and restrain Facebook/WhatsApp (Facebook) from removing (“off-boarding”) them from the WhatsApp platform pending the outcome of a complaint which they submitted to the Competition Commission, relating to alleged prohibited practices by Facebook, or for a period of six months (whichever occurs first).
 
This follows threats by Facebook to remove GovChat from the WhatsApp platform due to an alleged violation of the contractual terms of use.
 
Background
 
Launched in 2018 in partnership with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), GovChat is a digital platform i.e., a “chatbot” used by government to engage with citizens. GovChat operates via the WhatsApp platform which is owned and controlled by Facebook.
 
GovChat was established to enable the COGTA 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 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 / distress grants.
 
Arguments
 
Facebook argues that this case concerns its rights to enforce the contractual terms that govern the use of its paid business messaging platform, the “WhatsApp Business API”. They accuse the Applicants of breaching the terms of use in pursuit of commercial interests.
 
GovChat claims that it operates within WhatsApp’s terms of use, has never intentionally misrepresented its position and acted in good faith in all times. The Applicants cite numerous failed attempts to reach a commercial solution for all stakeholders, with Facebook, to prevent the termination of GovChat’s access to the WhatsApp platform.
 
The Applicants further argue that Facebook’s “off-boarding” of GovChat from WhatsApp’s API will end GovChat’s ability to render services to the government and citizens “at the height of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa and force the applicants out of business”.

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Issued by The Competition Tribunal
 

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