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South African Competition Commission Prosecutes Facebook for Abuse of Dominance

By: Gina Lodolo

On 14 March 2022, the South African Competition Commission (“Commission”) referred a complaint against Meta Platforms Inc is the parent company of WhatsApp Inc (“WhatsApp”) and Facebook South Africa (hereafter jointly “Meta”), to the Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”) for allegedly engaging in abuse of dominance.

The referral follows WhatsApp (as part of the  Meta group) attempting to off-board GovChat from the WhatsApp platform. GovChat is a chatbot service connecting government to millions of citizens on issues of public concern (e.g. information on COVID-19 vaccinations and social grants). GovChat is reliant on the WhatsApp platform to function and connect users, without which its entire existence will be prejudiced.

GovChat utilizes WhatsApp for their services due to WhatsApp’s scale and consumer reach, however, Meta has attempted to off-board GovChat by placing reliance on WhatsApp’s terms and conditions to enforce a restriction against monetisation of confidential information through the use of consumer data obtained on the platform.

In this regard, the Commissions media release notes that “Facebook has imposed and/or selectively enforced exclusionary terms and conditions regulating access to the WhatsApp Business API, mainly restrictions on the use of data”.

The selective enforcement by Meta and attempts to off-board GovChat from the WhatsApp platform, according to the Commission, potentially violates Section 8(d)(ii) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (as amended) (“Act”) which prohibits a dominant firm from abusing its dominance by “refusing to supply scarce goods or services to a competitor or customer when supplying those goods or services is economically feasible”. In the alternative, the Commission alleges that Meta has engaged in an exclusionary act or refused to give a competitor access to an essential facility when it is economically feasible to do so (under section 8(1)(b) or 8(1)(c) of the Act).

The Commission has requested the Tribunal to:

  1. Impose the maximum penalty permitted under the Act, being 10% of Meta’s turnover;
  2. Interdict Meta from off-boarding GovChat; and
  3. Declare void exclusionary terms and conditions that are selectively applied in a manner that prevents potential competition by restricting access to the WhatsApp platform for potential competitors.

In its media release, the Commission stated that “access to digital markets is dependent on access to digital platforms including as in this case, access to an important digital communication platform”.

Primerio Director, Michael-James Currie notes that this complaint referral follows an interim relief application whcih GovChat successfully obtained against Facebook and WhatsApp in the beginning of 2021 in terms of which WhatsApp was prohibited from off-boarding GovChat.

This case, says Currie also coincides with a very proactive drive by the Competition Commission to consider competitive effects in digital markets in South Africa.

The case also suggests that the Competition Commission considers the existing rules regarding abuse of dominance as being adequate to address competition concerns in the market.

For more background information click here

To access the Competition Commission media release, click here

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