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Accused of stifling critics and peddling false ads, WhiteHat Jr in ‘course correction’ mode

WhiteHat Jr’s transition from Wolf Gupta to Hrithik Roshan, during which it also got acquired by Indian ed-tech giant Byju’s for $300 million, has been embroiled in controversies and confrontations, both legal and those relating to reputation.

Written by Aashish Aryan , Pranav Mukul | Agartala/new Delhi, New Delhi | Updated: December 7, 2020 9:48:05 am
The Mumbai-based coding learning platform, acquired by ed-tech giant Byju’s for $300 million, has been embroiled in controversies.

Chances are that people would have come across an advertisement being aired on television where actor Hrithik Roshan talks about coding as an essential skill for the future. In the ad, Roshan is endorsing WhiteHat Jr, a platform for kids to learn coding based in Mumbai. The platform’s earlier marketing campaigns were, however, spearheaded by a fictitious character ‘Wolf Gupta’ — a child who bagged multi-crore salary package at a large technology firm, as claimed by the company.

WhiteHat Jr’s transition from Wolf Gupta to Hrithik Roshan, during which it also got acquired by Indian ed-tech giant Byju’s for $300 million, has been embroiled in controversies and confrontations, both legal and those relating to reputation. A key highlight of this journey was allegedly using takedown policies of social media platform to stifle online dissenters of the company’s processes, including some marketing campaigns, which the company now admits to have been “poorly designed”.

One such critic of the WhiteHat Jr app, its policies and the courses it runs — 30-year old software engineer Pradeep Poonia — said that 17 videos posted by him on YouTube, two YouTube channels run by him, two Reddit accounts, one Twitter handle, one Quora account, three LinkedIn articles, and one LinkedIn account have been either temporarily or permanently taken down as a result of WhiteHat Jr’s complaints to these platforms.

One of the first videos uploaded by Poonia was titled ‘Who is Wolf Gupta?’. In the video, he claimed to expose how Wolf Gupta is a fictional character — a fact not clearly put out by the company. Whenever a video uploaded by Poonia was taken down by YouTube, he filed for an appeal with the video streaming site.

“When I would file an appeal, YouTube would tell me that I didn’t have a valid reason to file a counter-notification. They would cancel my appeal every time. It was in October one day suddenly, 14 of my videos were restored and a channel that was taken down was reinstated. This was suspicious. To this, YouTube said that they asked the complainant for more information on why the takedown notices were sent but the complainant did not give any response,” Poonia told The Indian Express over the phone.

Is coding a must-have life skill of the future?

The initial reason for taking down of these videos on YouTube ranged from copyright violations and harassment to child abuse.

“With copyrights violation notices on social media platforms, our default response is to make the video unavailable for all the users. And then both the complainant and the defendant of the video are given time to explain their stand, which is then reviewed internally by our team. Depending of the submissions made by each party, the video is either restored or removed permanently,” a senior YouTube executive said, asking anonymity.

Replying to a query on allegations of WhiteHat Jr using policies of social media platforms to stymie freedom of speech, a company spokesperson said: “We have always been and will remain open to constructive criticism. We would like to highlight that we have been under a deep targeted attack from an organised group, which included false allegations and unauthorised images and videos being posted that severely threatened safety of our 11,000+ women teaching staff daily”.

WhiteHat Jr founder and CEO Karan Bajaj has filed a case in Delhi High Court against Poonia that stretches from defamation and infringement of copyrights to mischief, invasion of privacy and damages. Additionally, a case was filed against an angel investor Aniruddha Malpani, in which the company has alleged several of his tweets and posts to be defamatory, in infringement of trademarks, among other issues.

In a statement on the Malpani case, WhiteHat Jr said: “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”.

Many of these videos and posts initially alleged that the company has misled its customers by claiming in its ads to have trained kids, sometimes even as young as seven, to become master programmers, which led them to becoming speakers at events. Many of these ads also drew the ire of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which, in October, asked the company to withdraw five ads, which were in violation of the self-regulatory body’s code. WhiteHat Jr immediately withdrew these ads.

Two weeks ago, in a LinkedIn post, Bajaj addressed a number of these issues, including the case against Poonia, in which the Delhi High Court ordered the latter to take down several posts. Notably, in the post, Bajaj has also admitted to making “mistakes”. “We’ve made mistakes while growing up. Our marketing campaigns were poorly designed, which we changed. Legitimate, honest fact-based criticism is truly welcome…,” he wrote.

This was echoed by a senior executive at WhiteHat Jr with whom The Indian Express spoke. “We have been badgered for these issues of ASCI code violation and muzzling of dissent, and rightfully so. But now we have course corrected,” the executive further said.

Responding to a specific query on withdrawal of marketing campaigns and advertisements, a spokesperson for WhiteHat Jr said: “First, we changed several ads in June much before ASCI feedback and any criticism. Second, our launch campaign was replaced quickly with the ad campaign featuring Deepa Malik as an inspirational figure in September. The next campaign focusing on kids’ joy of coding and creation was launched in early November. We’ll continue to drive campaigns closer to our core essence of celebrating kids’ creativity”.

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