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Explained: WhiteHat Jr vs Poonia brings spotlight on freedom of speech vs libel issue

CNBCTV18 logo CNBCTV18 25-11-2020 Yashi Gupta
a person taking a selfie: Explained: WhiteHat Jr vs Poonia brings spotlight on freedom of speech vs libel issue © Provided by CNBCTV18 Explained: WhiteHat Jr vs Poonia brings spotlight on freedom of speech vs libel issue

The Delhi High Court on November 23 imposed a gag order on Pradeep Poonia, an ex-CISCO employee and UPSC aspirant as part of an injunction in a USD 2.3 million defamation case filed by WhiteHat Jr.

WhiteHat Jr, an online platform that teaches coding to kids, has accused Poonia of maligning its name and indulging in illegal activities like hacking into their servers and defaming their teachers. Poonia claims the online coding platform indulges in unethical advertising tactics to boost sales and makes fraudulent claims, and that he is entitled to his criticism of the platform.

Here’s an explainer on the controversy.

Background

In 2017, Poonia was working as a product manager for a B2B edtech company. He quit the firm in disillusion with what he said were the company's unethical practices, and began preparing for the UPSC entrance exam.

Then he came across WhiteHat Jr -- a firm whose target audience includes children as little as six.

As he probed, Poonia began to believe that the firm was selling courses that were elsewhere freely available on the Internet. To push its content, Poonia said the company deployed aggressive selling tactics.

His criticism was met with strong response from WhiteHat Jr, which claims that while it is open to fair critique, Poonia used to resort to personal attacks against the company and its employees.

Also read: WhiteHat Jr. gets partial gag order against critic Pradeep Poonia

Poonia accused WhiteHat Jr of using its employees -- especially in its online reputation management (ORM) division -- to stifle genuine criticism by mass reporting posts they find offensive to social media platforms. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube often take down posts after they receive a number of complaints, only to restore them later upon finding that the post was not malafide.

Things came to a head after Poonia started posting on Twitter and YouTube through an account named WhiteHat Sr, and later SafedTopi Sr -- accounts that were taken down by social media platforms for copyright infringement.

Poonia also tore into WhiteHat Jr's controversial "Wolf Gupta" ad, which talked about an imaginary child who lands a lucrative job with Google but without the disclaimer that such a person did not exist. WhiteHat took down the campaign following widespread criticism.

At the court hearing, WhiteHat Jr also accused Poonia of hacking into the company's Slack account, its internal communication channel and exposing its teachers’ contact numbers in the public domain, besides attacking them as “uneducated” and “housewives”.

The online coding platform also said Poonia’s 'WhiteHat Sr' Twitter username infringes on its trademark and this has caused them large losses.

The case

On November 21, WhiteHat Jr and its founder Karan Bajaj filed a 2.3 million dollar defamation suit against Poonia.

Charges against Poonia including posting defamatory comments about the company, trademark infringement, copyright infringement, and the torts of inducing breach of contract. He has also been accused of invasion of privacy of the company and its employees.

A single-judge bench of Justice Mukul Gupta granted an ad-interim injunction to WhiteHat Jr and founder Karan Bajaj against Pradeep Poonia, restraining him from commenting on the number or quality of teachers of WhiteHat Jr and using “WhiteHat Sr” as a user name.

The injunction further prevented Poonia from commenting on the educational and other professional backgrounds of its teachers, according to Live Law.

As well, Poonia was asked to not put out screenshots from the company's internal communication software in the public domain.

Poonia's defence

While the interim ruling has gone against Poonia, the court said that the case needs detailed probing.

In his defence, Poonia's lawyer argued for his client's right to freedom of speech. He also underlined WhiteHat's decisions, including, for instance, its decision to air the 'Wolf Gupta' ad.

The court reacted strongly to Poonia's claims of freedom of speech and questioned his decision to lob personal attacks against WhiteHat Jr's teachers.

“You are saying that their teachers are housewives, are you saying they are uneducated persons? How can you be so derogatory towards them? Of course, this is defamation.

“Who are you to put their numbers in the public domain? Who has given you this, right?” Justice Gupta said, as reported by Live Law.

The court also asked Poonia's lawyer to prove how usage of the social media handle WhiteHat Sr did not amount to copyright infringement, and in fact should be allowed as parody.

Poonia also claimed that he did not adopt the handle to earn money or confuse WhiteHat Jr's customers, and that he had turned down opportunities to earn revenue on his videos through YouTube ads.

To this, the court said that WhiteHat Jr did face a prima facie loss.

Bigger picture

WhiteHat Jr, which focuses on coding courses for kids, was acquired by Byju's for USD 300 million a few months.

Byju's, which offers online coaching class to school and college students, itself has seen its valuation surge to as much as USD 12 billion, as per its latest funding round, according to media reports.

Online coaching platforms such as Byju's have got a shot in the arm thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, which closed schools, and forced students and parents to look for online avenues for learning.

Both both WhiteHat Jr and Byju's, not to mention some of their other peers, have faced criticism for selling online courses at steep prices that do not justify the cost.

They have also been criticised for their hard-selling tactics, a problem compounded when a startup such as WhiteHat Jr creates a pitch guilt-tripping parents for not considering teaching coding to young kids.

Byju's and WhiteHat Jr have also been accused of stifling criticism by employing large ORM teams to take down critical posts.

For instance, Aniruddha Malpani, a leading IVF specialist who also invests in early-stage startups, has spoken against Byju's work culture, business model, and user experience among others.

In one of his posts, he said, “They (Byju’s) taught their sales-people to mis-sell by blaming and shaming parents, who are vulnerable. They exploited their ignorance by bad-mouthing schools and teachers, and warning them that their kids would be left behind in the competition if they did not buy the Byju’s apps. They locked them into multi-year subscriptions by offering discounts for payments made using EMIs through a third-party financer, and once parents had signed these contracts, they were stuck and could not cancel.”

Following his frequent outbursts against Byju's, LinkedIn deleted Malpani's accounts.

Speaking to CNBC-TV18, WhiteHat Jr founder Karan Bajaj spoke about the Poonia matter claiming that the company has been the target of wrongful criticism as well as personal attacks.

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