Pradeep Poonia posted a YouTube video about WhiteHat Jr’s false ads. Now the edtech company is suing him for defamation, trademark violation, and more in an effort to keep him quiet.
CW: Mention of suicide
By Suryatapa Mukherjee
WhiteHat Jr is an education technology (edtech) company that teaches children coding through online classes and it has recently risen in popularity due to COVID-19 lockdowns. It caught the eye of netizens with Wolf Gupta, a child who “got a job from Google while other kids his age didn’t know what to do after school,” according to its advertisement splashed across social media. How old is Wolf Gupta and how much does this child earn? He is 9 or 12 or 13 years old, earning between 150 crores and 1.2 crores, depending on which advertisement you come across. This discrepancy in the ads caught the attention of software engineer Pradeep Poonia, who planned to post just one video about this false advertising, thinking “it will sort itself out.”
That video was reported and subsequently taken down by Youtube after receiving only 15 views. “How did they find my video on a channel with zero subscribers? Why would they report a video with only 15 views? Seven of those must have been of my friends and family,” Poonia says. This unexpected response egged him to carry on, jumping from one platform to another, digging deeper and deeper. Now Poonia has been taken to court by WhiteHat Jr founder Karan Bajaj on charges of defamation, copyright infringement, trademark violation and hacking, claiming damages of $2.6 million. Poonia is joined by angel investor, Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, who is being sued by Bajaj for $1.9 million with charges of defamation, trademark infringement and unfair competition.
In a pandemic where both education and livelihood have become thorny subjects for parents, WhiteHat Jr claims that the young students on their coding platform bag jobs and create apps that pay in the millions. WhiteHat Jr has an annual run rate of $150 million, and in the US, the company has been growing “100 percent month on month.” Founder Karan Bajaj told Market Scale, “Our US debut has surpassed all our expectations and is growing at 160% MoM growth, which is even higher than the growth rate we witnessed in India.” In August, after just eighteen months of operation, WhiteHat Jr was purchased by another Indian edtech company, Byju’s, for $300 million in cash. Byju’s is the biggest edtech company in the world, valued at $11.1 billion. It intends to expand its American market with WhiteHat Jr.
In its defamation suit against Poonia, WhiteHat Jr’s lawyer says to the Delhi High Court, “the Defendant’s [Poonia] initial posts about Plaintiff No. 2 [WhiteHat Jr] started in relation to the Plaintiff No. 2’s advertisements concerning an imaginary child who the Plaintiffs christened ‘Wolf Gupta’,” thus admitting that Wolf Gupta is not real. In late October, the Advertising Standards Council of India had asked the education platform to withdraw five of their advertisements. “ASCI has processed complaints against seven ads of WhiteHat Jr, five of which were in potential violation of the ASCI code,” ASCI secretary general Manisha Kapoor said to the Economic Times. “We’ve made mistakes while growing up. Our marketing campaigns were poorly designed, which we changed,” founder Karan Bajaj has since said in a LinkedIn post. Poonia, however, is not satisfied. “He is apologising because this thing has blown up. And if he is apologising, why is he suing me? They are saying that I am defaming them. But they are defaming themselves with their ads,” he tells me.
Dr. Aniruddha Malpani has regularly spoken against WhiteHat Jr online and he has investments in several education startups which are competitors. “The malicious intent underlying the Defendant’s systematic campaign against the Plaintiff is apparent in the attempts by Bibox Labs to discourage the parents of its target consumer base to send their children to coding classes (which is the Plaintiff’s primary service) […] Thus, instead of fairly competing on the strength of their service offerings, Defendant’s slanderous campaign is clearly targeted towards helping his investment acquire an unfair commercial edge in a fiercely competitive market at the cost of harming the Plaintiff’s reputation and hard earned goodwill,” reads the legal notice.
Dr. Malpani says that WhiteHat Jr is harming the startup ecosystem with its practices. “The problem with the startup edtech system is that in the hurry to scale up and cash out, we underestimate the importance of the role of a teacher who actually cares about children and wants them to learn,” he has said in his tweets, “Increasingly, the venture-capital industry has become fixated on creating ‘unicorns’: startups whose valuations exceed a billion dollars.”
Although it started with an imaginary little boy, Pradeep Poonia’s claims have gone much further than false advertising and online reviews. He has accessed WhiteHat Jr’s internal communication on Slack, resulting in the charge of hacking. In one screenshot, team members discuss a teacher asking about a Facebook ad which claimed a student had created a facial detection app. “Need to create that app now,” Karan Bajaj is seen responding with a smile emoji.
The Slack channel shows the WhiteHat Jr team proactively tracking and reporting criticism from the public. However, more significantly, there is discussion of tweets by @poojaworrier claiming exploitation. “Exploitation of teachers and employees at work in @whitehatjunior 15hr working every day x 7 days a week. Team leader warns to terminate if raised voice. Feels frustrated, depressed, suicidal,” says the tweet tagging the Labour Ministry as well as Karan Bajaj. The response on the Slack channel is to immediately report the Twitter account and tweets. The account as well as the tweets are now unavailable. “After that night of 17 August, she never tweeted again. I messaged her a couple times asking, ‘Are you okay? Who are you?’ There was no response. I hope she’s okay but how do we know what happened?” asks Poonia.
However, WhiteHat Jr is not alone in facing allegations of employee mistreatment. In May, its parent company, Byju’s, was implicated in a video that showed a manager verbally abusing subordinates for not meeting sales targets. Byju’s issued a statement on Twitter saying, “We have taken action immediately against the manager and he has been terminated on the same day as per our zero tolerance policy towards such behavior.” This was after the video had been removed from all platforms through copyright claims.
There are other messages on the WhiteHat Jr Slack channel sharing screenshots of women interviewing for jobs at the company, with team members making discriminatory and innuendo-laden comments. The tweets and YouTube videos exposing these internal communications have now been deleted by Poonia following the high court order in the ongoing case. I accessed these screenshots prior to the order. Poonia denies the hacking charge and has declined to comment due to the ongoing case. However, after deletion of his controversial tweets, his Twitter has now been suspended. Poonia has reached out to Twitter for an explanation but hasn’t received a response yet.
Poonia’s campaign against WhiteHat Jr is a result of his own experiences with edtech. He says he swapped a high-paying job in software engineering for a low-paying one in edtech in 2017. “People were there to make money not educate. The marketing and salespeople make the most money. Teachers are actually paid the least. This is the exact opposite of how it should be,” he says.
As a hobby, Poonia academically guides 20-25 children in his family and neighbourhood. One of his cousins came to him expressing an interest in coding. She specifically asked to join WhiteHat Jr because “there you can get a salary,” she said according to Poonia. “She wanted me to talk to her father for a laptop. Her father is a farmer, he doesn’t have much. He had to think twice before buying an Rs 10,000 phone for his daughter to study in the lockdown. But with this kind of marketing, parents will ultimately do anything to better their child’s future,” he says. Poonia was already speaking against WhiteHat Jr at that time. So, he told his cousin to ask the teacher some of the questions the children had asked him earlier such as, “What is cloud? What is Java?” The wrong answers of the teacher were uploaded by Poonia online. These videos are now part of the lawsuit against him for defaming WhiteHat Jr teachers.
A former teacher with Whitehat Jr, Tavleen Duggal, has spoken out against the learning platform. “I had a student who would go to a cyber café for his classes as he didn’t have an internet connection at home. He used his father’s office laptop as he didn’t have his own. I have had parents tell me that the sales team said they’re bad parents if they don’t enroll their children. A lot of teachers would like to tell parents that it’s not worth it,” she warns. Duggal says that coding knowledge is not a prerequisite for teachers and many of her former colleagues still reach out to her for help with the curriculum. “One of the heads of the company told me that it is a sales-first company. Improving the product is not their priority. Some of their competitors have far better learning platforms but they’re not as well-known,” Duggal asserts. When asked if any child studying with WhiteHat Jr can make an app worth millions, she said, “Absolutely not.”
Poonia believes that WhiteHat Jr will become the standard of success for many others. “They are setting a dangerous precedent. If this works out for them, it means that you can tell any lie to kids. Other companies competing with them will do the same. And once everyone starts doing this, the way India works is that it will be accepted as the new normal,” says Poonia. “Even when I started criticising them, a lot of people would initially say that this is how India works, this is how marketing works. Once we accept this as a norm, we can never go back.”
The courts have passed interim injunctions partially gagging both Poonia and Dr. Malpani. “We didn’t want to go to court. Startups require intense, singular focus with no distraction. But false, unethical attacks, including attempts to breach into company servers and defame women teachers, severely impacted employees and teachers daily. News cycles turned against us because negative stories are far more sensational than the truth,” Karan Bajaj wrote on LinkedIn.
Both Dr. Aniruddha Malpani and Pradeep Poonia had their LinkedIn accounts suspended for posting defamatory content against WhiteHat Jr. “LinkedIn has received a claim that alleges you have posted defamatory content. Due to the number of postings, LinkedIn has permanently restricted your account,” the professional network told Malpani in an email. Malpani sued LinkedIn over free speech a month before being sued himself by WhiteHat Jr. He is determined to keep fighting both cases. “Whenever a large company sues someone, most people roll over and say they’re very sorry. It’s an intimidation tactic. They didn’t expect that people would not roll over.”
Suryatapa Mukherjee is a news reporter and feature writer in India. She has written for Vice, Huffpost, Asia Times and others. Her poetry was published in ‘Hiraeth Erzolirzoli: A Wales – Cameroon Anthology’. She chaired the Media Representation panel on Bi Pride UK 2020. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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