Cape Town - GovChat’s chief executive officer Eldrid Jordaan has welcomed the decision made by the Competition Commission to refer Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) and its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Facebook South Africa to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution for abuse of dominance.
It said the matter was “groundbreaking”, being one of the few abuse of dominance cases ever to be prosecuted by the Competition Commission and the first of its kind involving digital platforms and marketplaces.
GovChat said this matter echoed the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division’s recent case filed against Meta for its alleged strategies to eliminate emerging start-ups that rely on the Meta platforms and ecosystem to offer and innovate upon their services before they are able to become a threat to “Meta’s dominance”.
The commission wants Meta Platforms and its subsidiaries to face a maximum fine of 10% of their turnover.
Business Report previously reported that the commission alleged that Facebook had decided around July 2020 to offboard GovChat and #LetsTalk, a technology start-up that connects government and citizens, from the WhatsApp Business Application Programming Interface (WhatsApp Business API).
Facebook had also allegedly selectively enforced exclusionary terms and conditions regulating access to the WhatsApp Business API, mainly restrictions on the use of data.
According to the commission, this was in contravention of the Competition Act.
The WhatsApp Business API enables medium and large businesses (and the government) to, among other things, message at scale, make use of advanced automation, integrate with existing e-commerce and build chatbots, and features tracking metrics.
GovChat was launched in 2018 and enables the public to engage with all spheres of government to report a wide variety of issues and other service delivery requirements.
GovChat also enabled the government to disseminate information to the public en masse, such as information related to Covid-19 system tracking, testing and vaccination.
Business Report further reported that the commission said the decision to offboard GovChat from the WhatsApp Business API, and the exclusionary terms for access, limited innovation and the development of new products and services, and it found that the terms governing access to the WhatsApp Business API were designed to shield Facebook from potential competition.
Jordaan welcomed the commission’s decision.
“This sets a precedent for South African start-ups to continue on their mission, regardless of the headwinds.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve the nearly nine million citizens and residents who use GovChat as their point of engagement, and touch point,” he said.
He said GovChat has created a platform to assist in enabling residents to digitally access social services, including the processing of 13 million Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant applications, a partnership with the Department of Health and other private sector partners, and provides seven million citizens and all who have tested for Covid-19 a secure and reliable way of receiving their test results on their devices, regardless of whether they tested at a public or private health-care facility.
It provides a safe reporting feature for gender-based violence and enables citizens and residents to connect with their municipalities and service delivery points for an accountable and responsive local government.
“We are grateful to our partners, namely the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), the Department of Social Development (DSD), the Department of Co-operative Governance, as well as the continued support of the United Nations in South Africa and Unicef.
“We hope that the 10% fine which Meta faces will act as a deterrent to big tech from acting in a way that stifles start-ups, innovation and competition,” Jordaan said.
However, on Wednesday, WhatsApp denied it had engaged in any anti-competitive conduct or that it tried excluding GovChat from the market.
WhatsApp alleged that GovChat had repeatedly refused to comply with its policies, which are designed to protect citizens and their information.
It claimed GovChat preferred to prioritise its own commercial interests over the public.
WhatsApp said it would continue to defend itself from abuse and protect its users.