WhatsApp ‘disappointed’ after it’s blocked from off-boarding GovChat

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Facebook-owned WhatsApp is resolute that its quest to off-board GovChat is not anti-competitive but that the latter has “repeatedly refused to comply” with its terms of service.

This follows the Competition Tribunal’s decision that prohibits Facebook, WhatsApp and Facebook SA from off-boarding GovChat from the popular messaging service.

GovChat and its subsidiary #Let’sTalk brought an urgent application before the tribunal, asking for interim relief against the social network powerhouse.

WhatsApp wants to off-board GovChat from the WhatsApp Business Account (WABA), alleging government’s official citizen engagement platform has violated its terms of use.

The tribunal granted the application for interim relief, stating: “The respondents [Facebook, WhatsApp and Facebook SA] are interdicted and restrained from off-boarding the applicants from their WABA pending the conclusion of a hearing into the applicants’ complaint lodged with the [Competition] Commission, or six months of date hereof, whichever is the earlier.”

In addition, it indicated: “The respondents shall not engage in any conduct that directly or indirectly undermines the applicants’ relationships with its clients for purposes of achieving the same outcome as off-boarding the applicants. The applicants shall not on-board any new clients or users to the WABA. In relation to existing clients or users on the WABA, the applicants shall not launch, expand or sell any new use-cases to these clients.”

While it’s grateful for the tribunal’s findings, WhatsApp says it’s disappointed it has been blocked from removing GovChat at this stage.

"We want our services to be used to help get essential information to people during COVID,” says a WhatsApp spokesperson. “That’s why we’ve worked with business solution providers alongside more than 100 governments and NGOs around the world, including the South African government, to launch official coronavirus chatbots.

“GovChat has repeatedly refused to comply with WhatsApp's terms of service and refused our offers of help to become compliant. We're disappointed the tribunal did not permit us to off-board GovChat at this stage, but grateful that its findings, which include imposing restrictions on GovChat’s operations, will continue to defend WhatsApp from abuse and protect our users.”

Failing to comply

While GovChat equates the move to off-board it from WABA as anti-competitive conduct, WhatsApp insists the matter relates to GovChat’s repeated failure to adhere to the messaging service’s terms of service over the course of several months.

GovChat has maintained it has not breached WhatsApp's policy, saying that if it’s off-boarded from the WhatsApp business platform, its “entire existence will be materially prejudiced”.

Founded in 2016 and launched in 2018, GovChat is the official communications platform for government. It is an open government partnership with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. The service describes itself as South Africa’s largest civic engagement platform accessible online, on any mobile handset and feature phones.

In January, Facebook’s legal team told the Tribunal that GovChat was “breaking all the rules” in how it uses WhatsApp’s business platform.

According to WhatsApp, GovChat has repeatedly refused to comply with its terms of service and refused their offers of help to become compliant over the course of several months.

This, it notes, is why it is seeking to terminate GovChat’s WABA, to protect users and their personal information and to ensure the services are offered in a safe and compliant way.

WhatsApp has indicated that despite earlier acknowledgements that they had violated terms and promises to come into compliance, GovChat then filed for injunctive relief to prevent us from enforcing our terms of service.

WhatsApp says it remains absolutely committed to helping governments and NGOs to provide trusted, official sources of health information to the public, such as the national Department of Health’s COVID-19 support service on WhatsApp. 

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