The Competition Tribunal has released an order for an interim arrangement until it issues its decision in the interim relief application against WhatsApp and Facebook by government’s WhatsApp-based citizen engagement platform.
The order, which will regulate the arrangements between GovChat, WhatsApp and Facebook from now until the tribunal issues its decision, was issued because the parties were unable to agree on arrangements among themselves during this interim period.
The tribunal order provides that WhatsApp and Facebook may not remove GovChat from the WhatsApp platform or do anything to undermine GovChat’s relationship with its clients that would, in effect, off-board GovChat from the WhatsApp platform.
It also stipulates that GovChat may not add any new clients or users to the WhatsApp business account; and will not be able to expand their current service offering in relation to existing clients or users on the WhatsApp business account.
The Tribunal heard arguments from January 13 to 18 from the applicants, GovChat and Hashtag Letstalk, for interim relief for six months, or until the resolution of a complaint they submitted to the Competition Commission relating to alleged prohibited practices by Facebook.
“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 application programming interface (API),” the tribunal said in a previous statement.
The application follows 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.
Further, GovChat argued that Facebook’s removal of GovChat from WhatsApp’s API will end its 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”.
The digital platform service was launched in 2018 in partnership with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) as a chatbot used by government to engage with citizens.
While established to enable the Cogta to monitor and evaluate provinces and municipalities’ service delivery, response times, failures and successes and corruption in real time, GovChat diverted its services 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.
The tribunal’s order in relation to the interim relief application will be issued in due course.