South Africa’s Competition Commission doesn’t take a hand in the tech industry all that often. When it does, the effects are usually extensive and far-reaching. Meta, formerly Facebook, is about to find out what that means. SA’s Competition Commission has just instituted proceedings against the social media giant.
The reason for prosecuting Meta before the Competition Tribunal is simple. Meta messed with the government. Specifically, government platforms called GovChat and #LetsTalk.
Meta makes a mess
The Commission alleges that Facebook, as it was known in 2020, “expressed an ongoing intention to offboard Gov Chat and #LetsTalk, a technology start-up that connects government and citizens, from the WhatsApp Business Application Programming Interface (WhatsApp Business API).”
It also restricted government access to the company’s WhatsApp Business API in contravention of the Competition Act, sections 8(1)(d)(ii), 8(1)(c), and 8(1)(b), claims the Commission.
“The Act prohibits a dominant firm from abusing its dominance by engaging in exclusionary conduct geared at preventing competitors or potential competitors from entering into, participating, and expanding in a market.”
Long story short, Facebook (now Meta) used its dominant position by not allowing GovChat access to the WhatsApp Business API. And then there’s where Facebook’s anti-competitive behaviour comes in.
Everything’s a competition
“[T]he Commission also found that the terms and conditions governing access to the WhatsApp Business API are designed to shield and insulate Facebook from potential competition, such as the potential competition presented by the GovChat and enormous data it has been able to harvest which enables it to develop new services and products.”
Translation: Facebook uses its extremely powerful position to favour itself while keeping potential threats out of sight. Which is just the sort of thing the Competition Commission is supposed to keep an eye on.
The Commission is looking to sting Meta fairly hard. To the tune of 10% of Meta Platforms, WhatsApp, and Facebook South Africa’s annual turnover. That’s the maximum penalty the Tribunal can levy. Additionally, the Commission hopes to “…interdict Facebook from off-boarding GovChat from the WhatsApp Business API and to declare void certain exclusionary terms and conditions for access to the WhatsApp Business API.”
GovChat’s lawyer Shawn van der Meulen, speaking to Stuff‘s Toby Shapshak, called this “…a groundbreaking case, being one of the few abuse of dominance cases ever prosecuted by the South African Competition Commission, and the first of its kind involving digital platforms and markets.”
It remains to be seen how Meta will respond. It’s unlikely that we’ll see any speedy resolution. One of the benefits of being Meta is that there’s a bottomless pool of money to draw on. But South Africa’s Competition Commission tends to be tenacious, at the very least.