In this story, we track three people- Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, Pradeep Poonia and Jihan Haria- who have been engaged in an online battle with WhiteHat Jr.

Aniruddha Malpani in a cream shirt and Pradeep Poonia in a black tshirt were served defamation notices by WhiteHat JrAniruddha Malpani and Pradeep Poonia
Atom EdTech Saturday, November 28, 2020 - 15:41

On July 20, Mumbai-based angel investor Dr. Aniruddha Malpani received an email from LinkedIn stating that it had received a complaint about him posting defamatory content, and due to the number of postings, his account has been permanently restricted. LinkedIn also listed down all the posts that were flagged as defamatory. Dr. Malpani was then barred from LinkedIn, an action he is currently contesting at the Bombay HC.

Dr. Malpani’s LinkedIn account was taken down because of a series of posts he made from May 2020, about several instances of complaints against celebrated EdTech major Byju’s – from disgruntled employees to angered parents, instances of aggressive sales practices, among others. His posts accused Byju’s of mis-selling and indulging in malpractices, among others.

“I was hopeful that Byju’s would respond to this feedback and fix their broken processes. They had a chance to engage on LinkedIn and show the world how they had improved,” he said.

Ousted from Linkedin, Dr. Malpani then took to Twitter and continued to post about the alleged malpractices of the company. A few weeks later, Byju’s acquired Mumbai-based coding startup WhiteHat Jr in a much-talked about $300-million deal.

Dr. Malpani alleges that once acquired by Byju’s, WhiteHat Jr also started marketing its platform aggressively, in the Bjyu’s way and in no time, there were ads everywhere about kids having the chance to become the next CEO of Google, SpaceX or Microsoft by joining their coding classes, which caught the attention of many. Dr. Malpani then turned his attention to WhiteHat Jr, and after a few critical tweets that the firm has called baseless, a defamation suit was filed against him for Rs 14 crore.

However, the issue of people raising their voice against both WhiteHat Jr and Byju’s isn’t new and has been happening for a while – from angered parents over quality of services provided, to observers criticising WhiteHat Jr’s aggressive marketing tactics. A few, however, have been a lot more vocal than the others, and have also faced the brunt of it – in the form of their content being taken down from various platforms, and defamation cases being filed against them. The startup however maintains that they are 'supportive of free speech but there was a need to distinguish fair criticism and malice and they only took action against those indulging in the latter.

WhiteHat Jr was recently granted two interim injunctions by courts temporarily protecting them against tweets, posts and videos by two individuals, including Dr. Malpani, who the coding platform claimed were posting defamatory content against the company. As part of each of the orders, the Delhi High Court also restricted them from saying defamatory things against WhiteHat Jr. The HC noted that the coding platform and its founder Karan Bajaj would suffer an irreparable loss if an ad interim injunction were not granted.

While Dr. Malpani was barred from LinkedIn, an action he is currently contesting in the Bombay HC and faces a defamation suit, another man who has been taken to a court, this time in a Rs 20 crore defamation case is software engineer Pradeep Poonia.

It is important to note that Dr. Malpani has invested in Evobi, a startup that runs Bibox, which offers ready to use kits for children to tinker with and design model machines, automated robots, among others. 

He has also invested in a language learning platform called Multibhashi.

Censoring Dissent 

Pradeep Poonia, says he began noticing something fishy about these ads. “I didn’t know much about the company but kept coming across the ads. The whole deal about Wolf Gupta was so obviously fake to me, but I was worried there were many who could get fooled by these ads and so I decided to make a video about this,” Poonia tells TNM.

Wolf Gupta is a 9, or 12 or 13-year-old child who secured a job in Google for anywhere between Rs 1.2 crore to Rs 150 crore salary, according to ads by Whitehar Jr. It was only recently that the company admitted to court that this was a fictional character, something that the court was not pleased about and said it will ‘undoubtedly have consequences on a child's psychology’.

Poonia created a YouTube channel on August 28 and posted a video titled ‘Who is Wolf Gupta’, pointing out discrepancies in different ads in the age and salary of Wolf Gupta, who supposedly bagged a job at Google thanks to coding. He tried pointing out through the video that Wolf Gupta didn’t exist.

In no time, the video was taken down for ‘copyright violation’.

“I had zero subscribers and the video barely got 30-40 views and it was taken down. That made me very suspicious. How did WhiteHat Jr even find this video? That made me think that something was up, which is why I cannot find anything on the internet about Wolf Gupta,” he says.

Also read: Who is Wolf Gupta? The story behind WhiteHat Jr’s fictional prize student

Poonia, in one YouTube video, alleged that he checked the reviews of the company’s app on Google Play Store, and found discrepancies.

“There were only two types of reviews - either 5-star or 1-star. Normally legitimate reviews will have a range of 2, 3, 4 stars also. As I read further I noticed that there were several reviews that said the same thing word by word, posted a few days apart, which meant they were obviously fake,” he adds.

This video too, was taken down at the behest of a complaint by the company. He then made a video showing a class between a student and a WhiteHat Jr teacher blurring out the entire screen, without the logo being visible. This too, was taken down for copyright infringement.

Meanwhile Poonia also made a Twitter account, which was taken down in August. He then made another Twitter account where he says he began documenting the sequence of events but avoided tagging WhiteHat Jr or even using a hashtag.

He also posted on Reddit alleging harassment by Byju’s, which he claims got over 2.500 upvotes. However, his account was barred due to harassment.

“In total, 16 videos, two YouTube channels, one Quora account, one Twitter account, two Reddit accounts, three LinkedIn articles and one account were taken down. It used to be pretty disappointing that I would take time to make a video, write something about it and then just as people would start noticing, it gets taken down. I was running from one platform to another,” Poonia says.

Poonia says he kept digging irrespective, and claims to have found new evidence each day about the underhand tactics used by WhiteHat Jr. This included him posting chats of Karan Bajaj and other employees on their internal communication platform. However, Poonia refutes WhiteHat Jr’s claims of him hacking into the company’s platform but declined to reveal how he got access to the same. It must also be noted that most of Poonia’s allegations have not been investigated and verified by any authority, Wolf Gupta however has turned out to be fictional, as Poonia pointed out.

As his tweets and posts got traction, Poonia claimed that current and ex-employees, parents, and others would message him. “I would get messages that the work culture was bad, I kept receiving evidence about the toxic work culture, proving that I was right,” he adds.

It was around this time The Ken and Forbes had also written about Poonia and another kid whose video was also taken down from YouTube.

A roast gone wrong

Twelve-year-old Jihan Haria has a YouTube channel where he makes videos about different things such as cooking, gaming, movie reviews, among others. He made a video roasting advertisements of WhiteHat Jr and Dove. The video was taken down within an hour for copyright violation.

“In hindsight, the video wasn’t even that funny. I didn’t mean any harm to the company or their product since I didn’t use it. It was an innocent roast of their advertisement and they took it down. We were disappointed at first, then my dad tweeted to Mr Poonia and a few others about this and also posted about it on Twitter,” Jihan told TNM.

Poonia then posted the video on his third YouTube channel, where it has received over 30,000 views. Jihan’s father Mehul Haria says that they received a mail from YouTube a few days ago saying their video could be reinstated as the complainant did not comply with some of the requirements of a copyright violation claim.

“Jihan started his YouTube channel in May. He’s been making videos on the various hobbies he has. He’s still young and has interest in multiple things that we let him try out. This was one of them. But they took down the video of a child,” Mehul says.

“I cannot comment on their product because I haven't tried it, but we are against WhiteHat because of whatever they are doing in terms of aggressive marketing and censoring. I made another video on them and this time it’s a little more aggressive, because now it's personal,” Jihan says.

Apart from Jihan, another video made by two marketing consultants analysing WhiteHat Jr’s advertising strategy was also taken down but has now been reinstated.

Poonia’s videos and previous YouTube channels too, have now been reinstated.

It is pertinent to note that several of the company’s ads, including the ones about Wolf Gupta, who WhiteHat Jr admitted was fake, were taken down after the Advertising Standards Council of India directed the company to do so.

Pressure tactics

On the other hand, Poonia also claims that the company used various methods of pressuring him into stopping or deleting his posts.

He claims to have also received calls from a senior executive of the company, and of Byju’s asking him why he was doing this.

“The Byju’s executive asked me why I have an issue with their ads when Google, Elon Musk and Bill Gates don’t. He asked me to go ahead and complain to Google, since they anyway have the rights for the images they use,” Poonia claims.

According to a report by The Morning Context, Elon Musk’s SpaceX reportedly reached out to WhiteHat Jr asking them to refrain from using their logo.

Dr. Malpani also claims that he received a call from a Byju’s investor when he was posting on LinkedIn, asking him not to.

A Lawsuit

The Delhi HC order in Pradeep Poonia’s case has temporarily restrained him from downloading instructions or curriculum of the company and circulating the same to others, from hacking or unauthorizedly or unlawfully accessing Karan Bajaj’s system and the company’s internal communication platform and displaying conversations between employees anywhere.

He has also been restrained from commenting on the number of teachers or the quality of teachers on the platform without sufficient or complete details on their educational and other professional background.

He has also been restrained from using the name ‘Whitehat Sr’ for his YouTube Channel. This is apart from him being asked to take down 12 tweets and four YouTube videos.

In the case of Dr. Malpani, the court has temporarily restrained him from posting anything that defames or deprecates WhiteHat Jr or its course content, management or employees and has asked him to take down a few tweets.

While Dr. Malpani has deleted tweets that were deemed defamatory, he says, “I have only spoken the truth and we will submit our evidence on the same.”

Poonia, on the other hand, is of the opinion that the ad interim injunction was in fact in his favour and says he is confident of winning the case. “They wanted to shut me down completely, but only got directions for a few tweets and videos, which is a lot less than what they were taking down anyway. While I will comply with the order, I will continue to speak out.”

“I wouldn’t have cared if it was a small obscure company. But this is a million dollar business with so many customers… My main point is that they are setting such a dangerous precedent. If this strategy of theirs works out, what would stop others from doing similar things,” Poonia adds.

WhiteHat Jr response

In response to TNM’s questions on the defamation suit and action taken against Dr. Malpani, the company said:

“Counsels for WhiteHat Jr underscored that they are supportive of free speech but emphasised the need to distinguish fair criticism and malice. They struck a distinction between what is of interest to public and in public interest and indicated that free speech protects the latter, not the former. Highlighting the background of Mr. Malpani, the counsels pointed out that he is an angel investor who is investing in businesses in the edutech ecosystem, such as one which professes to teach children website and app development and animation, among other things.

Fair commentary can be argued by individuals who don't have skin in the game and make comments from an arm's length; not by an individual whose commercial investments stand to be impacted by defaming and disparaging a successful business rival. This is a summary based on what was dictated in open court at the end of the virtual hearing. Needless to say, the letter and spirit of the order will have to ultimately be complied with.”

With respect to Poonia, the company reiterated what the Delhi HC order said, as already mentioned above.  

TNM has reached out to Byju’s and is yet to hear from them.

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