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“Your kid will be on the next flight to Silicon Valley” or see you in Consumer Court: A Case Against WhiteHat Jr

Scrutinisation of BYJU’s edtech startup WhiteHat Jr’s advertisement by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has once again opened a debate on consumer rights’ to be informed amidst corporate censorship and content moderation. When Byju’s acquired WhiteHat Jr for $300 million, the edtech company became a component of the multi-billion dollar virtual learning empire. WhiteHat Jr, that offers coding courses for children, has recently drawn the ire of some tech experts and parents for its strategy, specifically its policy against dissent on social media platforms. 

The Marketing Mishap  

Many of these posts and videos alleged initially that the startup deceived its clients by pretending in its announcements that children are trained to become master programmers, often as young as seven year old, which enabled them to speak at events. Critics think that WhiteHat Jr’s biggest issue is that guardians are worried about their children missing out on a successful career in coding. On account of suspicious and unsubstantiated claims, 15 complaints against 7 advertisements resulted in the immediate removal of 5 advertisements due to infringement of ASCI code and the decision came amidst the issue of advisory guidelines against misleading and deluding claims for treating COVID-19. 

It seems that using the pressure tool of “Sharmaji ka Beta”, luring parents using brand power of tech leaders like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the pretext of “Wolf Gupta” has gone too far and landed the company’s advertisement under the ambit of Consumer Protection Act 2019 pertaining to false and misleading advertisements. In some countries the spirit of United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP) can be found in constitutions while many countries have legislation that recognise consumer rights. 

Content Moderation 

People who have questioned the practices or marketing techniques of the coding startup have had their posts quickly removed from the internet. According to analysts, this may be corporate censorship, pointing to a broader discussion over openness in moderation of content. 

An ex Cisco engineer and UPSC aspirant, Pradeep Poonia, claimed that the venture had used “copyright protection” tactics to silence his dissent and delete his posts on social media. . Poonia, a 30 year old engineer said that Seventeen videos released by him on Youtube have either been permanently or temporarily removed as a consequence of WhiteHat Jr’s complaints, two of them being from YouTube, three LinkedIn posts, one Quora account, one Twitter handle, one Reddit account and one LinkedIn account. One of Poonia’s first videos was ‘Who is Wolf Gupta?’. In the video, he attempted to show how Wolf Gupta is only a fictional character and in no way can it be proved otherwise. When YouTube took down a video posted by Poonia, he lodged an appeal with the streaming platform. And the reason stated for such removal given was harrasment , child abuse and copyright violations.

Jihan Haria, a 12-year-old like many others, found himself a lockdown passion of making YouTube videos. He managed to amass 800 odd subscribers only to face a strike from YouTube. Haria’s video mocks and incorporates jokes that are self-deprecating on how much he has “squandered six years of his life” by not knowing and learning about coding. Jihan’s father protested and tweeted about the case and got Poonia’s attention who later uploaded a new edit of  Jihan’s video on his YouTube channel.

From parents to celebrities, many have criticized the methods of  WhiteHat Jr and Byju’s. Some prominent personalities who tweeted against WhiteHatJr were poet-lyricist Neelesh Misra and filmmaker Anubhav Sinha. Pulling down social media posts and YouTube videos for criticising the ubiquitous advertisements and WhiteHat Jr’s marketing strategies and tactics, broadly, raised the larger question on the scope of copyright infringement in silencing the dissent by content regulation. Despite the provision in the Copyright Act that permits the exemption of commentary and review, several videos have been taken off  YouTube for copyright violations, presumably because of the usage of footage from the advert itself. 

Learning from Past Mistakes 

One of the senior executives at WhiteHat Jr has later clarified that they have taken corrective actions by removing certain ads in the backdrop of ASCI feedback and criticism received. Simultaneously, they have launched other campaigns featuring inspirational figures such as Deepa Malik and majorly focusing on themes such as the joy of coding and creation while celebrating the core essence of kids’ creativity. Even though the startup is currently entangled in the debate, veterans in the industry feel that they have effectively conveyed the message to their target audience i.e., children and parents – that they have a forum for kids to develop skills in coding, which can improve their lives.

From the perspective of White Hat Jr, “They have accomplished their goals , as people want to talk more about them than Byju’s today.” The proactiveness of the government and the increasing interest of parents to introduce their child to coding at an early age has propelled a series of new companies in the edtech sector. WhiteHat Jr, at present leads the coding segment with 5 million registered clients, 175,000 of whom are paying  the startup, supporting the business with a yearly recurring revenue of 180 million USD. It is yet to be seen whether it will be able to fix the credibility harm it has suffered over the previous months by making enemies out of developer communities in  India or if they will choose to engage in ignorance.. 

Dikshi Arora is a second-year law student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, CPL 2021-22 Public Policy Fellow and Columnist for CNES, JGU. Shivank Kumar is a student of BA.LL.B. at Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA.

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