Facebook accused of trying to kick South Africa’s GovChat off WhatsApp

GovChat has told the Competition Tribunal that Facebook wants to kick them off WhatsApp so Facebook can deal directly with the government to offer similar services.

GovChat describes itself as a civic engagement platform. It offers various government-sanctioned communications services, including information relating to COVID-19 and connecting with government representatives.

“As the official citizen engagement platform for the South African Government, GovChat acts as a centralised hub bringing all government and civic services together with cutting-edge conversational AI, intuitive design, and ease of access,” the GovChat website states.

In its statements to the Competition Tribunal, GovChat said that Facebook South Africa advised government representatives that GovChat was going to be “offboarded” from the WhatsApp Business API.

This was because Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, wanted to deal directly with the government to the exclusion of GovChat, it told the Tribunal.

GovChat also argued that Facebook is advantaging companies like Praekelt Consulting Services, which build competing services to GovChat.

It said that Facebook – despite being expressly invited to do so – chose not to disclose the nature of its commercial relationship with Praekelt to the Tribunal.

Instead, it added, Facebook simply stated that there is no inappropriate commercial relationship between Facebook and Praekelt without addressing any of the allegations that GovChat raised.

GovChat contends that Facebook is engaging in discriminatory practices by looking to kick it off of Facebook, but allowing Praekelt to continue to operate along with Aviro Health, Internet Filing, and Telkom Pay.

This is because Facebook is accusing GovChat of violating its terms and conditions in specific ways, yet according to GovChat these other services all do similar things to what it is being accused of.

“We do not believe there is a distinction to be made between the services offered by GovChat, Aviro Health, and Internet Filing.”

According to Facebook, each government department must have its own WhatsApp Business API account as they must each be vetted separately.

GovChat is therefore not allowed to provide services for one government department using a WhatsApp Business account that was obtained on behalf of another department.

However, GovChat maintained that Praekelt does this and Facebook does not appear to take issue with how they use the WhatsApp Business API.

GovChat also noted to the Tribunal that its system is a successor to Praekelt’s. Praekelt was originally a partner of GovChat and helped onboard GovChat’s system to the WhatsApp Business API.

GovChat later moved away from Praekelt to handle the functions it provided internally.

“When it was Praekelt doing it, Facebook had no problem,” GovChat stated.

The Competition Tribunal asked GovChat what its business model is given that it offers its services for free to government. GovChat declined to answer the question in a public forum.

GovChat has brought an urgent application to the Competition Tribunal to interdict and restrain Facebook from removing it from the WhatsApp platform pending the outcome of a complaint which they submitted to the Competition Commission, or for a period of six months (whichever occurs first).

Heads of argument — GovChat and #LetsTalk

GovChat’s heads of argument filed with the Competition Tribunal are embedded below.

Head of argument — Facebook and WhatsApp

Facebook’s heads of argument filed with the Competition Tribunal are embedded below.

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Facebook accused of trying to kick South Africa’s GovChat off WhatsApp