Tribunal asked to restrain GovChat’s removal from WhatsApp

12th January 2021 By: Creamer Media Reporter

Government’s WhatsApp-based citizen engagement platform GovChat has brought an urgent application to the Competition Tribunal to prevent Facebook, WhatsApp and Facebook South Africa from removing it from the WhatsApp platform.

The Tribunal will hear arguments on January 13 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.

The duo said that Facebook threatened to remove GovChat from the WhatsApp platform owing to an alleged violation of the contractual terms of use.

“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 statement.

“They accuse the applicants of breaching the terms of use in pursuit of commercial interests.”

However, GovChat maintained that it operates within WhatsApp’s terms of use, has never intentionally misrepresented its position and has acted in good faith in all times.

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.