As per the court order, Poonia – a software engineer – has been restrained, until the next court hearing to be held on January 6, 2021, from accessing the company’s curriculum and internal communication channels, like Slack, and telecasting or transmitting information from those sources in public.
He has also been restrained from commenting online on the quality of the personnel who teach coding to school students through WhiteHat Jr’s platform and to take down a few tweets that had referred to the startup as a “pyramid scheme”.
“The suit entails several disputed questions of fact which it would be improper to enter upon at this stage. However, there are some facts which require an injunction,” Delhi High Court justice Mukta Gupta said.
Poonia has also been restrained from using the keyword “WhiteHat” for his YouTube channel until the next hearing.
Poonia said during the court proceedings that he had not downloaded any curriculum from Whitehat Jr – which teaches coding to school children online — or hacked into its system, and was therefore willing to suffer an injunction on this count.
Bajaj told ET, “There’s a narrative being played around that we are suppressing criticism, whereas we are welcoming fact-based criticism and making amends wherever necessary as we did recently with our marketing campaign.”
Referring to the defamation case against Poonia, Bajaj said: “But is this criticism when you breach into our system, take up a fake identity to call our teachers and refer to them with defaming comments like calling them housewives who are not trained? There’s nothing to learn from here.”
“Our case was only against these things and the court has agreed on those. We don’t want to stop criticism,” he added.
Poonia told ET, “WhiteHatJr has been systematically trying to shut down criticism, the history of which is well-documented in various articles. They have created fictional children who earn 20 crores, attributed false accomplishments, such as a TedX talk that never was and have made completely baseless claims without regard for the facts or for the effects that these statements may have on young children. My intention was and is only to expose these false and unethical business practices, generate public debate on important issues that could affect a whole generation of youngsters who buy into this false propaganda. They sought a sweeping gag order and wanted to prevent me from ever referring to them using trademarks as a basis. I’m glad they didn’t get what they sought from the court. I will be filing a detailed response to their claims.”
Meanwhile, WhiteHat Jr has filed another defamation lawsuit against another critic, angel investor Aniruddha Malpani, seeking damages worth $1.9 million. That case will be heard in the Delhi High Court on Tuesday.
The Wolf Gupta Mess
Last month, advertising regulatory body ASCI
had asked WhiteHat Jr to withdraw five of its ads which claimed that knowledge of coding enabled children as young as six and seven to develop apps that will have investors lining up. These ads had gone live in August.
“We reacted as fast as we could on the criticism received on these ads,” Bajaj said.
Another campaign — around an imaginary child named Wolf Gupta — was brought up during the court hearing against Poonia on Monday.
Poonia said the ads claimed that Wolf Gupta was employed by Google at a salary of Rs 20 crore, criticising it as only a fictional element created to attract children.
Critics of the startup, like Poonia and Malpani, have said that such campaigns are made to sell tall dreams to parents and that they eventually affect the mental health and psychology of children.
On the Wolf Gupta campaign, Bajaj told ET, “It was incorrect to have run that campaign. I admit that better systems should have been in place, but it was taken down through a process of self-review months ago, much before the criticism started.”
Bajaj said the Wolf Gupta campaign rolled out around January-February when the startup was just a year old.
He did not comment on the case against Malpani, saying it was before the courts.
Malpani told ET, “I don’t understand how WhiteHat Jr objects to “false, unethical attacks” but feels it is ethical to spend money on ads like Wolf Gupta which are full of lies and deliberately designed to cheat parents by making false claims.”
Bajaj did not comment on the impact the Wolf Gupta campaign may have made on users while it was running.
When the lawsuit went social
Several startup founders from India and abroad have taken to Twitter over the last two days to speak out on the legal battle between WhiteHat Jr and critics Poonia and Malpani.
“I don’t think this sets the right example for the startup ecosystem,” said Jani Pasha, cofounder of online information and classifieds platform Lokal, which caters to non-English speakers.
“Investors, founders and employees have made money through the WhiteHat Jr exit. They should have preferred to focus on valid criticism and fixing it rather than filing this lawsuit. Everyone loves a David vs Goliath story, and this has effectively turned into that, making this worse for WhiteHat Jr’s credibility,” Pasha added.
In August, ed-tech leader Byju’s
acquired WhiteHat Jr in a $300 million all-cash deal.
General Atlantic and Sequoia India, investors in Byju’s, declined to comment on the lawsuits filed by WhiteHat Jr against Poonia and Malpani. Other investors in the tech ecosystem did not respond to ET’s queries on the issue.
Audio storyteller Neelesh Misra, who has over 125,000 followers on Twitter, called the lawsuits “a disastrous move by Karan Bajaj, because it will blow into national attention the troubling murmurs against this company that one keeps seeing in a scattered manner all over the social media.”
Finally, WhiteHat Jr founder @realkaranbajaj shows his true colours. Rather that fixing its huge problems WhiteHat… https://t.co/MZUtFqINGq
— Neelesh Misra (@neeleshmisra) 1606012452000
Misra, founder of Slow, an entity that propagates a simpler and meaningful life through its content, products and experiences, has also been a vocal critic of WhiteHat Jr online.
“Every time I tweet about this, I get more and more parents who agree, who are equally troubled with this company and its ways. If they thought this would force a fearful silence, this lawsuit has just stirred a hornet’s nest,” Misra told ET.
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