A Bengaluru-based software engineer single-handedly challenged WhiteHat Jr for fake advertisement on various social media platforms. He has since been banned from Twitter. His videos have been taken down from YouTube, and his posts have been deleted on Reddit. He is Pradeep Poonia, and here is the whole story.
It Starts With WhiteHat Jr
In October 2018, Karan Bajaj, an Indian entrepreneur and former head of Discovery Networks in South Asia, founded WhiteHat Jr – an ed-tech platform to teach coding skills to young children from the ages 6 to 14 years. The platform, run by the Mumbai-based parent company WhiteHat Education Technology, gives live one-on-one lessons taught by early childhood coding educators using a structured curriculum for different age groups.
As of September 2019, the company grew its user and teacher base and secured its first significant funding round, valued at $10 million. WhiteHat Jr was acquired by Byju’s for $300 million in 2020. Byju’s, which offers online coaching classes to school and college students, itself has seen its valuation surge to as much as $12 billion, according to its most recent round of funding.
Online coaching avenues such as Byju’s have got a boost due to the coronavirus pandemic as schools went into closings and students were forced to look for online learning platforms.
Mass Marketing- A Faux Campaign
In September 2020, as the company made national headlines about its international appeal and reach, it embarked on massive advertisement campaigns in India. It flooded social media and television with its advertisements. As the marketing expanded, misleading advertising cases started surfacing on social media, with people criticizing the company for swamping ads on TV and online platforms.
The Economic Times estimates indicate that the company was spending between Rs. 10-15 crore on marketing only. As this happened, many people brought up the overzealous and misleading declarations by the company. These included one of their supposed students, a seven-year-old kid, being portrayed as a TEDx speaker and the youngest mobile application developer.
Enters Pradeep Poonia
During September 2020, Pradeep Poonia highlighted many loopholes in the company’s claims through channels his Twitter and YouTube channels. His one video challenged WhiteHat Jr’s claim that a particular student of the startup, Wolf Gupta, got a job at Google.
Poonia is a former Cisco employee. Poonia has also worked as a product manager for a B2B ed-tech firm. He quit the company as he became aware of what he said were the company’s unethical practices. He is now preparing for the UPSC entrance exam.
He also pointed to its allegedly fake 5-star reviews of its app while posing as customers on app platforms. He alleged that the ed-tech startup is silencing the critics of its unethical marketing models by getting their social media posts taken down.
The Advertising Standards Council of India noticed the issue as Poonia’s claim went viral on social media, and many others joined in the complaints as well. ASCI found five ads by the company to violate the council’s code and asked the tech platform to pull them down.
The company agreed to comply.
As he kept probing the company’s claims, Poonia began to believe that the firm was selling courses freely available on the Internet elsewhere. He even asserted that the company deployed aggressive selling tactics to push its content. His criticism was met with a firm answer from WhiteHat Jr, which insists that while it is open to just critique, Poonia resorted to personal aggression against its employees.
Poonia accused WhiteHat Jr of using its employees- especially in its online reputation management (ORM) division- to subdue genuine criticism by mass reporting the posts against the company as offensive on social media.
Crackdown by Social Media
Social media platforms- majorly Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube- often take down posts and content if several complaints are lodged against it. Things became nasty when Poonia started posting on Twitter and YouTube through the accounts named WhiteHat Sr. He also made another account- SafedTopi Sr- both of these were taken down for copyright violation.
Poonia also tore into the controversial “Wolf Gupta” ad by the company, which showed an ‘imaginary child’ getting a lucrative job with Google. They aired the advertisement without any disclaimer that such a person did not exist at all. WhiteHat recalled the campaign following widespread criticism.
In the same month, Tekie, another startup that teaches programming to children, accused WhiteHat Jr. of posing as a student and attending their classes to understand their business model and technology. On November 13, Poonia took a significant step and brought to light the alleged questionable practices at WhiteHat Jr by sharing screenshots and videos of the communication in the company’s Slack channels.
Using the communication as a basis, Poonia claimed to show how employees at WhiteHat Jr used personal and fake accounts to get negative reviews, including videos showing the inexperience of teachers, removed and harassed their prominent critics.
He also flagged how employees passed inappropriate comments on new candidates appearing for interviews at the company. The commentary from Poonia also mentioned Anirudh Malpani, an angel investor and another staunch critic of WhiteHat Jr.
WhiteHat Jr's Response
A week later, WhiteHat Jr filed a $2.6 million case against Poonia in the Delhi High Court, accusing him of defaming the coding startup, hacking into its servers to access internal communications as well as violating its trademark and copyrights.
WhiteHat Jr accused Pradeep Poonia of tarnishing the company and engaging in illegal activities, such as hacking its servers and slandering the teachers. The court passed the order restraining Poonia from performing specific actions, including making unsubstantiated claims against WhiteHat Jr and commenting on their teachers’ quality.
During the court hearing, White Hat Jr. also accused him of attacking their teachers as “illiterate” and “housewives.” He has also been charged with hacking communications channels and revealing the company’s teacher’s contact details in the public domain. The online coding platform also claimed that Poonia’s username “WhiteHat Sr” on Twitter infringed its trademark and caused huge losses.
As the preliminary ruling issued the verdict against Poonia, the court held that a detailed investigation is needed on the case. Pooinia’s lawyer asserted his freedom of expression in self-defense. He also highlighted Whitehat’s decisions, such as the decision to broadcast the ‘Wolf Gupta’ commercial, as a breach of law.
The court also asked Poonia’s attorneys to prove how Poonia’s social media handle Whitehat Sr did not infringe the company’s copyright. The lawyer claimed the account was run as a form of a parody of the company, not illegal. Poonia also claimed that he did not use the handle to raise money or confuse White Hat Jr.’s customers in any form. He has also rejected his video monetization opportunities through YouTube ads.
Exploitative Big Fish
WhiteHat Jr. and Byju’s are criticized for selling online courses at high prices that aren’t justified as the cost incurred in availing these courses is much lower across the spectrum. They are also criticized for poor sales tactics that exploit the parents into making them feel guilty for not thinking about teaching young children by undertaking the classes for coding and programming.
Companies are today resorting to malpractices to sell their products to parents. Byju’s and WhiteHat Jr are a few of the many that boost their sales-people by blaming and shaming vulnerable customers, here- the parents. They exploit the customer’s ignorance by maligning the existing institutions like schools and teachers and feed on their fears like their kids’ future in a world of cut-throat competition.
And practices like multi-year subscriptions and the discounts on them are put up as the tempting fronts for contracts that cannot be signed out of or cancelled. A relook into the emerging ed-tech industry is imperative by the respective authorities, and proper guidelines must be set. Only then can the future of children and mindsets of anxious parents be fully secured.