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GovChat Takes WhatsApp To Competition Tribunal

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Young woman using cell phone to send text message on social network at night. Closeup of hands with computer laptop in background

The South African government’s civic engagement platform, GovChat, has requested an interdict from the Competition Tribunal to prevent Facebook from removing their service from its WhatsApp platform.

GovChat is the platform being used by the South African government to engage with citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was launched in 2018 under the department of cooperative governance & traditional affairs. It offers a “chatbot” on WhatsApp that is used by government to engage with citizens. It was created to allow the department to “monitor and evaluate provinces’ and municipalities’ service delivery, response times, failures and successes, and corruption, in real time”.

However, Facebook is now attempting to remove GovChat from WhatsApp for what they consider to be a violation of contractual terms of use. The Competition Tribunal confirmed that GovChat is seeking an interdict.

“The applicants, GovChat (Pty) Ltd and Hashtag Letstalk (Pty) Ltd, are asking the tribunal to interdict and restrain Facebook/WhatsApp from removing (“offboarding”) them from the WhatsApp platform pending the outcome of a complaint which they submitted to the Competition Commission,” the Competition Tribunal said, according to TechCentral.

“This follows threats by Facebook to remove GovChat from the WhatsApp platform due to an alleged violation of the contractual terms of use.”

Facebook accused GovChat of breaching the terms of use of the WhatsApp Business application programming interface (API) in “pursuit of commercial interests”. GovChat, however, said it operates within WhatsApp’s terms of use and has “never intentionally misrepresented its position”.

By removing GovChat from WhatsApp’s API, it will no longer be able to “render services to the government and citizens at the height of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa and will force the applicants out of business”.

GovChat has been used extensively throughout the country during the Covid-19 pandemic and its removal could interrupt critical social grant processes as well as attempts to trace Covid-19 transmissions.

“After the Covid-19 outbreak, GovChat diverted (its focus) 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 and distress grants.”

The tribunal will hear the case via an online hearing today.

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