Competition: Facebook, WhatsApp referred to tribunal for prosecution

The Competition Commission has referred social media giant Meta Platforms Inc (previously known as Facebook Inc), and its subsidiaries, WhatsApp Inc and Facebook SA, to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution. A TimesLIVE report notes that the company is accused of abuse of dominance. In a statement, the commission alleged that Facebook in 2020 ‘expressed an ongoing intention’ to remove GovChat and # LetsTalk – a technology start-up that connects government and citizens – from the WhatsApp Business Application Programming Interface. It claims they violated the contractual terms of use. However, the commission argued that this was in contravention of the Competition Act, which prohibits a dominant firm from abusing its dominance by engaging in exclusionary conduct geared at preventing competitors or potential competitors from entering, participating, and expanding in a market. It has asked the tribunal to impose a maximum penalty against Meta Platforms, WhatsApp, and Facebook SA – an amount equal to 10% of their collective turnover. In addition, the commission has requested the tribunal to interdict Facebook from offboarding GovChat from the WhatsApp Business API.

Launched in 2018, GovChat allows citizens to report potholes and other service delivery issues with national, provincial, and local authorities. It also sends information about Covid-19 system tracking, testing and vaccination, as well as providing online applications for social relief and distress grants. Fin24 reports that the commission said hundreds of thousands of messages are sent via the app every day. GovChat is dependent on its continued access to the WhatsApp Business API, the commission found.

WhatsApp has defended its decision to boot the public messaging system off its service. ‘GovChat has repeatedly refused to comply with our policies, which are designed to protect citizens and their information, preferring to prioritize its own commercial interests over the public,’ a WhatsApp spokesperson said. ‘We will continue to defend WhatsApp from abuse and protect our users.’ A Business Day report notes at the heart of the dispute is Meta’s allegation that GovChat – launched in 2018 by listed technology group Capital Appreciation and the Department of Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs – is in violation of its contract terms of use. When it signed up its digital communication programme to the WhatsApp Business app it pledged to use the service to monitor and evaluate service delivery, response time, failures, success and corruption in real time, Meta says. However, after the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the government used GovChat to convey awareness messages, notifications on symptom-tracking and test results. In addition, the commission has requested the tribunal to interdict Facebook ‘from offboarding GovChat from the WhatsApp Business API and to declare void certain exclusionary terms and conditions for access to the WhatsApp Business API’. According to the commission, Meta is in contravention of the Competition Act.

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