Karaj Bajaj, an Indian entrepreneur and founder of the coding platform WhiteHat Jr (1), has filed a defamation suit against Pradeep Poonia, an engineer who publicly criticized the startup for its marketing strategies, the courses’ quality on the platform, and aggressive removal of negative feedback.
According to the startup, the demand for its one-on-one classes has hiked about 90% in 2020. Notably, it aims for kids who live in America for its coding classes.
According to lawsuit (2), Bajaj is seeking 2.6 million USD for damages. He has accused Poonia of infringing the trademarks and copyright of WhiteHat Jr properties, defaming and spreading misleading information about the firm and its founder, and accessing its private communication apps.
It also accuses Poonia of publicly sharing phone numbers of the firm’s employees and making strong accusations from its marketing strategies to child sexual abuse. White Hat Jr lawyer claim that Poonia recorded WhiteHat Jr’s classes and sessions, asked irrelevant questions to humiliate and harass the teachers, and then posted them on the internet.
“As some of the one-on-one communications between the Plaintiffs’ teachers and the Defendant have demonstrated, the former have felt extremely threatened and harassed by the Defendant which is even more pertinent given that the Plaintiffs’ entire workforce of 11,000 teachers is female.”
– The Lawsuit.
It further added that the defendant’s activities have critically affected the plaintiff’s business and lost its goodwill and reputation. It has also ruined the confidence of its customer in the company. Due to the defendant’s tweets, the Plaintiffs have suffered a massive loss in the conversion rate of trial classes to registration, severely affecting its revenue.
WhiteHat Jr’s Swift Silencing
However, the lawsuit, filled with spelling and grammatical errors, indicates how little criticism WhiteHat Jr, owned by Byju’s (3), India’s second most valuable startup is willing to accept.
As per WhiteHat Jr’s channel, slack’s internal posts, shared by Poonia, the startup uses copyright protection to aggressively take down several unflattering comments about the firm in recent months. It also raises concern where Poonia had accused WhiteHat Jr of murdering an imaginary student featured in one of its earlier ads.
A 12-year-old kid named “Wolf Gupta” had appeared in WHiteHat Jr’s earlier ads. The firm claimed that the kid had received a lucrative job at the tech giant, Google. Bajaj’s lawyers stated that the kid does not exist. It is interesting since that was also Poonia’s argument, who spent a long time unearth further information about WhiteHat Jr’s poster child in his tweets ( 4).
WhiteHat Jr and Disappearing
Several people who have criticized its methods or marketing strategies have realized that the firm is quickly wiping off their negative feedbacks from the internet. Some experts say that the move could be part of their corporate censorship; nevertheless, it points to a more considerable debate regarding the content moderation transparency.
“They had a good thing, to begin with, but it has been downhill since. Now you are left wondering, why exactly are they afraid?”
– Pradeep Poonia.
WhiteHat Jr teaches coding to children even as young as 6-year-olds. Jihan Jaria, a Pune-based 12-year-old kid like many others of his age, bespectacled, energetic, chubby, and eyes sparkling with mischief. He had found himself a lockdown passion with making YouTube videos on everything from cooking to stop motion with his parents’ help. Gradually, he gained over 800 subscribers. He also found himself in controversy and faced a YouTube strike.
In October 2020, Haria had filmed a series of advertisement roast videos. A format where he dissected advertisements that he considered meme-worthy. He made jokes about the exaggerated plotlines and so on. He also talked about a WhiteHat Jr’s advert.
It showed a group of people in suits charging into a home and punching and pushing one another to get there first in the race. And a mother and father are watching the action, smiling, and sipping their morning tea. A neighbor then comes to what this is all about, and the mother delightfully tells him that these are investors who are rushing to bank Chintu’s, their son studying elementary app. The neighbor is visibly jealous.
Haria pokes fun of its cinematography, acting, and self-deprecating jokes about how he wasted six years of his life not learning to code. He uploaded it on his YouTube channel, called Just Jihan, on a Sunday afternoon. Haria was pleased to see that the video was doing well.
However, when he woke up from his post-lunch nap, he was shocked. YouTube had removed the video for copyright violations presumptively since it used the video from the advertisement itself.
However, experts say the copyright claim is not seeming straightforward.
“The law has an exemption for commentary in the Copyright Act, where you can reproduce the content for reviews, for instance.”
– Prashant Reddy, Independent IP Lawyer (5).
While commenting on the copyright strike, Haria stated that his video never dismissed WhiteHat Jr’s product and only commented on the advertisement. He said that he was sad and discouraged to see it removed and asked his father to react (6).
Haria’s father tweet about the incident received Pradeep Poonia (7), a former Cisco engineer and current UPSC civil service aspirant’s attention. Notably, he had been prolonged fighting against WhiteHat Jr taking down such posts.
Several cases like Haria have critiqued the edtech startup or its marketing strategies and had their post swiftly removed across all social media sites such as YouTube, Quora, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Twitter.
Two marketing and communications professionals, Ayushi Mona and Krishni Miglani, posted a video on what the internet was raving about this week last month. The video featured a few ladies discussing WhiteHat Jr’s controversy about its advertisements, neighbor’s envy cliche, and pride. Their video was removed from the platform within an hour of the upload over copyright issues. The duo had posted about the incident on their LinkedIn profiles (8).
“We did reach out to the [YouTube] team with concerns via LinkedIn and put outposts, but haven’t heard back. We got a copyright violation reason mentioned, but no specifics called out. YouTube is silent on the policy there as well as majority product reviews like movie reviews do feature them.”
– Krishni Minglani (9).
A WhiteHat Jr spokesperson stated that the weight to remove the post lies with the platform itself and not the startup or complainant. He said that there is no question of silencing dissent. He added that the team had highlighted several videos to respective platforms with inappropriate language. However, the platform takes the final call on deleting the video.
In the next part of its statement, the company had acknowledged problems in its marketing campaign. The company stated that it aims to inspire children to become creators of technology instead of passive consumers. It believes that learning to code helps in building logical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Across the globe, leading economies like the US, UK, Australia, and Israel advocate for coding. The company acknowledges its customers’ feedback on its marketing campaign and will work towards articulating its vision more pointedly in the future.
Experts believe that while corporate censorship issues are common, it points to a broader requirement for content moderation transparency.
“This is more a comment on how YouTube and other social media are moderating their platforms. If it’s so easy for companies to censor critical content, that’s the larger issue. Algorithms cannot distinguish between fair use and copyright law.”
According to Shashidhar KJ (10), an associate fellow in Observer Research Foundation, specializing in technology and policy, it has been an old age issue on YouTube over fair use and copyright.
Notably, YouTube has a Content ID (11) system. It tries to identify the copyright owners and give the content to the rightful owner of the IP. The portal created the music ecosystem feature when record labels asked for fair IP compensation when people used their music.
At present, it seems that WhiteHat Jr is abusing the content ID system. If someone is reviewing or critiquing a company’s marketing, one would have to show the advertisement. Technically, those ads are WhiteHat Jr’s copyright, and YouTube has to comply with it. It is safe to say that the Content ID system is heavily in favor of the IP holder.
It is a good instance of the limitations of social media. It indicates how much Millenials need to fall back on legacy media and why old-school activism and journalism are essential to raising such issues.
According to Nikhil Narendran, lawyer and partner of Trilegal (12), previously, people had to go to court, get an order, and then get it removed.
“Now, intermediaries are controlling the flow of information using their community standards and guidelines. Technically, they still need a court order, but due to commercial relationships with companies giving them so much advertising, they may move a muscle to bring content down.” – Nikhil Narendran.
It is worth highlighting that if someone is losing here, WhiteHat Jr. People usually refrain from subscribing to a company in the habit of bullying people, even children. The startup is losing a large amount of consumer goodwill while playing such tactics (13).
According to experts, the debate would then go to mainstream media to spread information by word-of-mouth. It would make parents more aware of potential issues. Can WhiteHat Jr remove awareness from Whatsapp? Because technically, they are end-to-end encrypted.
“WhiteHat Jr is a relevant product that can truly make coding sexy in a way it never was. But here’s what it needs to do: Humbly accept the reality that it overdosed on advertising, go into fine-tuning product rehab and come back like a responsible leader who cares about the customer more than the sales target. There is not a single historical evidence of a corporate doing the former who survived. In a category like education, respect needs to be earned. This category it is trying to build is certainly going to thrive, with or without them, and its standing will depend upon their ability to empathize.”
– Abhik Choudhary, marketing expert and chief strategist and founder of Salt and Paper Consulting (14).
He emphasized that the big part of its flaw rests on its marketing campaigns, and they could have handled damage control better.
The Defamation Notice
The defamation notice sent to Poonia has highlighted that the defendant violated the Trade Marks Act of 199, The Copyright Act of 1957, and the Code of Civil Procedure of 1908. They have filed the case for Infringement of Registered and Unregistered trademarks.
The company has filed the lawsuit concerning Poonia’s defamatory comments about WhiteHat Jr. Fidus Law Chambers is representing the company WhiteHat Jr & Anr. They have accused the defendant of trademark infringement, passion off, and dilution of trademarks, copyright infringement, and contract breach. Moreover, they have also charged Poonia for mischief and privacy invasion of the company and its employees.
The notice mentions that Poonia started the defamation spree in early September by making comments on WhiteHat Jr’s ads concerning the imaginary kid.
The defendant’s posts quickly turned sinister after the withdrawal of the advertisements, with the defendant claiming that Plaintiff No. 1 [WhiteHat Jr] had “murdered” Wolf Gupta.” – The notice.
WhiteHat Jr also issued a takedown notice against Poonia, which he followed. However, he soon launched a systematic defamatory attack against the firm and restored to illegal acts, and made wild and baseless allegations, the notice highlighted.
The company had also accused Poonia of hacking into WhiteHat Jr’s internal business communications, SLACK, communications with customers, and putting them in the public domain.
About Poonia’s tweet thread, he highlighted how the firm’s ORM team handled any negative comments against the company on the internet. He also highlighted the international communications of WHiteHat Jr, talking about angel investor Aniruddha Malmani’s and Abhishek Baxi’s, a context writer’s tweets.
Notably, after Tekie, a kids’ platform for coding, the movement accused the startup of using unethical practices to understand and copy their teaching method. Naman Mukund (15), the co-founder of Tekie, alleged that an employee of WhiteHat Jr impersonated a six-grade student’s persona to attend Tekie’s trial class.
He added that they had encountered a suspicious session, where the student had his camera turn off, and the voice that came from the other side sounded like a 30-year-old adult.
After the court hearing on November 23 Monday, Poonia will have to take down some of the tweets, especially those where he accused WhiteHat Jr of several charges as a part of the interim sanction.
Notably, the firm has also charged Poonia for hacking into its servers; however, his counsel has denied the allegations. It is not the final decision, and the court would hear both sides in the next hearing scheduled on January 6, 2021.
Justice Mukta Gupta has invited Poonia to submit an affidavit in response to the charge. He added that the court finds that the grant of an interim sanction in the current suit involves decisions on several facts.
Under the ad interim injunction, Poonia can’t download and distribute, directly and indirectly, the curriculum or study material of WhiteHat Jr via his or third party channels. The court has also refrained from hacking or unauthorized access to SLACK, the internal communication platform, and displaying it publicly.
He also can’t comment on WhiteHat Jr’s teachers’ number or quality without sufficient details about their education or professional background. He will have to remove his YouTube channel named White Hat Sr and some of the videos that display internal communications and proprietary content.
The court has also directed Poonia to take down his tweets with unsubstantiated claims about the edtech startup.
Poonia has openly criticized WhiteHat Jr’s promises and workplace ethics on several social media platforms, including LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.
The firm has now charged Pradeep Poonia for hacking and trademark violation, copyright infringement, and defamation and has claimed damages 2.6 million USD. The Indian court has recognized that the defendant has a right to criticize the platform. But it added that the defendant had crossed some lines in the process.
WhiteHat Jr has forced suspension of Poonia’s YouTube videos and LinkedIn accounts. However, the platform has also received criticism for its aggressive marketing. Even the lawyers of the platform accepted that some of their marketing content had been a gimmick. It was referred to the advertising character Wolf Gupta (16), which Poonia had called fake and misleading. Lawyers stated that it was a bad idea, and we have removed it.
Mukta Gupta, the judge, also debated whether teaching coding to young children is a good idea or whether their business model is an EMI Trap, as Poonia called it (17). He stated that both sides have enough arguments on teaching coding to children and online learning pressure.
It is worth highlighting that the Indian government has recently changed the National Education Policy, which included coding at a young age in schools (18). The lawyer of WhiteHat Jr argued that Poonia’s issues with the frim are ideological. He wants free education, and the firm appreciates it, but we do not see him going after other private firms.
Nevertheless, the more excruciating challenge for Poonia would be to prove that there was no hacking.
Primarily, WhiteHat Jr has alleged a severe accusation of hacking against Poonia. Over the past few months, Poonia has shared screenshots of the firm’s team chats on slack to highlight its marketing practices and lapses in the culture. In the process of sharing, he also shared the private numbers of teachers on the internet and compromised their privacy.
Even though Poonia’s lawyer stated that there were no hacking and employees of the edtech company contacted the defendant to share the details, WhiteHat Jr took the stance. It noted that any unauthorized sharing of data, whether via hacking or through an employee sharing his credential, is unlawful. Its lawyer also added that Poonia had put up the CEO’s password on a public forum, and he had also done a live stream for the entire weekend after hacking into the system.
“Delhi HC refused to grant a sweeping injunction against me as #WhiteHatJr wanted in their 20 Cr suit. They keep trying to silence dissent and have failed. AGAIN! Thanks to all of you who supported me! Let’s continue to fight for transparent and ethical biz practices.”
– Pradeep Poonia (19).
Nevertheless, the battle between WhiteHat Jr and Poonia will be a prolonged legal battle (20).
In recent months, Indian education startups‘ scores report skyrocketing growth as schools are closed across India due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Notably, Byju’s is the most valuable edtech startup across the globe with a roster of marquee backers like Mary Meeker’s Bond.
Most Indians refrain from paying for online services. For instance, Facebook has amassed more than 400 million users nationwide but still makes very little in India. However, the education category is an outlier. Indian families spend heavily on their child’s education to pave the way for their better future.
Byju’s and WhiteHat Jr have weaponized stringent and unclear copyright infringement rules on social media for their benefit. Despite the neutrality claims, their practices have made these entities judge and jury. Considering their legal complaints, a move towards other platforms seem to be the only available recourse.