Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissent

Multiple people who have criticised the kids coding startup's methods or marketing campaigns have found their posts swiftly wiped off the internet. Experts say this could be corporate censorship, which points to a larger debate around transparency in content moderation

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Oct 22, 2020 01:11:47 PM IST
Updated: Mar 17, 2021 04:10:10 PM IST

WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissentWhiteHat Jr teaches coding to kids as young as age 6. Image: Shutterstock 

Pune-based Jihan Haria is a 12-year-old like many others—bespectacled, chubby and energetic, eyes twinkling with mischief. He’s found himself a lockdown passion: Making YouTube videos on everything from cooking to stop motion with help from his parents, slowly amassing 800-odd subscribers. He’s also found himself in the midst of a controversy, as he faced a curious YouTube strike.

Haria filmed the first of a series of ‘advertisement roast’ videos last week, a format that dissects an advertisement that the creator considers meme-worthy, making jokes about the exaggerated plotlines and so on. He kicked off the series with speaking about an advert for WhiteHat Jr, an ed-tech startup that gives coding courses for children as young as six; within 18 months of operation, the startup was acquired by ed-tech giant Byju’s for $300 million in August.

The advert shows a group of people in suits charging into a home, punching and pushing each other in a race to get there. Out on the porch, a mother and father are watching the action with a smile, sipping their morning tea. A neighbour comes to see what the ruckus is about, and the mother is gleeful as she tells him that these are investors, rushing to bank on ‘Chintu’, their elementary school son who has built an app. The neighbour is visibly jealous.

Haria’s video pokes fun at the cinematography, the acting, along with self-deprecating jokes about how he has “wasted six years of his life” not learning how to code. It was uploaded on his channel, called Just Jihan, on Sunday afternoon, and Haria was pleased to see that it seemed to be doing well. But when he woke up from a post-lunch siesta, he was in for a shock: The video had been taken off YouTube for copyright violations, presumptively because it used footage from the advert itself. His channel had got one strike; with three strikes, the channel is taken down entirely.

However, experts say the copyright claim doesn’t seem straightforward. “The law has an exemption for the purposes of commentary in the Copyright Act, where you can reproduce the content for reviews, for instance,” explains Prashant Reddy, an independent lawyer specialising in intellectual property (IP).

“The video never dismissed WhiteHat Jr’s product itself; it was just a comment on the advertisement,” Haria says. “I was sad and discouraged to see it taken down, and I told my father we must react.”

WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissentJihan Haria, a 12-year-old YouTuber, found his video roasting WhiteHat Jr's advertisement removed.

Haria’s case is not in isolation; multiple people who have critiqued WhiteHat Jr (WHJ) or its marketing campaigns have found their posts swiftly taken down, across social media platforms, including YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit, Twitter and Quora.

Haria’s father tweeted about the incident and got the attention of Pradeep Poonia, a former Cisco engineer and current UPSC civil services aspirant, who has been fighting against such takedowns by WhiteHat Jr for weeks now. Poonia posted a revised version of Haria’s video, which includes Haria giving an introduction on what happened on the Just Jihan video, on his YouTube channel instead, which he claims WhiteHat Jr has stopped policing since he garnered some media attention. At the time of writing, this video is still online. “It’s got about 2,000 views already, which is a big deal for me,” Haria smiles.

This channel, however, is Poonia’s third. From his first YouTube channel, called WhiteHatSr, six videos were removed; another eight were wiped off his second channel, called Safed Topi Sr 2. This third channel, named Pradeep Poonia 3.0, stays away from the WhiteHat Jr references in its name, and has seen two videos erased. The first two channels were suspended because of repeat strikes.

Poonia, who previously worked in ed-tech and found himself disillusioned with startups that chase money and numbers over education quality, began to post against WHJ in the middle of August. On September 11, his first video was taken down, and several posts since.

Poonia’s videos take on various claims that WhiteHat Jr has made. For instance, WHJ advertises a certain child called ‘Wolf Gupta’, who, after learning to code with the firm, got a job at Google that pays in crores. Poonia points out in his video that Wolf Gupta’s age keeps changing across advertisements, from nine to 14, as does his salary package—from Rs1.2 crore to Rs20 crore to Rs150 crore. In another video, Poonia posts screen recordings of WHJ’s app reviews on the Google Play Store to show how many of the 5-star reviews have very similar text and therefore appear fake.

According to notices from YouTube, which Forbes India has reviewed, violations against Poonia’s videos have been raised by a company called AiPlex on behalf of either Byju’s or WHJ. AiPlex is a Bengaluru-based anti-piracy company that also launched digital marketing and advertising verticals in 2019. While a contact request to AiPlex went unanswered, it lists Byju’s among its clients on its website.

“I’m not a YouTuber, and I just started these channels to highlight issues that I thought were misleading parents,” says Poonia. “So my videos got hardly 15 to 20 views to begin with. It was thus quite suspicious that they were being taken down.”

Poonia’s videos were being flagged for copyright infringement, including ones that had no footage from any of WHJ’s own collaterals. For one that was taken down because ‘WhiteHatJr logo is shown on top left corner of the screen’, Poonia re-uploaded it with the entire screen blurred, and still got the same outcome. Soon, videos were being wiped out within 35 to 40 minutes of being uploaded.

Poonia appealed to YouTube for most of the videos, and pasted these appeals in public posts on Reddit. They were taken down from Reddit and his account suspended. YouTube rejected the appeals, saying, “Thank you for your counter-notification. Unfortunately, it's unclear to us whether you have a valid reason for filing a counter-notification, so we won't be able to honour your request”, as seen in the screenshot below.

 WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissent

Meanwhile, Poonia also lost two Reddit accounts, one Quora account and a Twitter account. On Twitter, he has resurfaced as @WhiteHatSnr. He has uploaded all his videos to a decentralised platform called LBRY.

Forbes India reached out to both WhiteHat Jr as well as YouTube India with detailed questionnaires on Wednesday (October 21) around 3.30 pm. Before the companies responded, Poonia, after weeks of rejected appeals, received three emails from YouTube Copyright between 5.59 pm and 6.28 pm. Each of the emails now said, “The complaint lacks one or more legally-required elements of a copyright takedown notice, so we asked the requesting party to provide additional information to complete their notice. Pending their response to our email, we reinstated your video(s) and resolved your copyright strike”. No fresh appeals were filed to prompt this action—in fact, Poonia says some of the videos reinstated weren’t appealed for at all.

These emails are in Forbes India’s possession, a sample of which has been pasted below.

 WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissent

 “This means they had no legal grounds to take them down in the first place,” Poonia says. “I appealed for most of the videos across several weeks—how have all of them been reinstated in one go? Moreover, even the ones I hadn’t appealed for have been restored. That shows the authority such companies have over Google and YouTube.”

A total of 14 of the 16 videos were reinstated on Wednesday evening, and his first two channels restored. Two videos on his third channel remain revoked. “Yet, they continue to remove others’ videos,” Poonia adds.

Two marketing and communications professionals, Krishni Miglani and Ayushi Mona, posted Episode 1 of a passion project three days ago, a video on what the internet is raging about in the week. The video featured the ladies discussing the controversy over WhiteHat Jr’s advertisements and the clichés of the ‘neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride’ style campaigns, and was taken down within an hour for copyright issues. The duo has posted about the incident on their individual LinkedIn profiles, linking to the now-unavailable video. Forbes India has a copy of the video.

WhiteHat Jr and the curious case of disappearing dissentPradeep Poonia has been speaking out against WhiteHat Jr since August.

“We did reach out to the [YouTube] team with concerns via LinkedIn and put out posts, but haven’t heard back,” Miglani tells Forbes India via email“We got a copyright violation reason mentioned but no specifics called out. YouTube is silent on the policy there as well as majority product reviews like movie reviews do feature them.”

Watching the watchdog

A statement from a WhiteHat Jr spokesperson in response to Forbes India’s questionnaire says the onus to take down posts lies with the platform itself, not the company or complainant.

“The right of deleting a social media post lies with the platform, no private organisation has it, and so the question of silencing dissent doesn’t arise,” the spokesperson said via email. “We have highlighted certain videos to respective platforms where inappropriate (read abusive) language was used. The final call on the video to be deleted is actually taken by the platform.”

The company does acknowledge problems in its marketing in the next part of the statement: “Our vision is to inspire children to be creators of technology rather than being passive consumers of it. At the core—learning to code helps in developing logical thinking and problem-solving skills. In fact, globally too, leading economies, including the US, Australia, the UK, Israel and more advocate coding. We acknowledge consumer feedback on our marketing campaign and will work towards articulating our company vision in a more pointed manner in the future.”

Experts say while corporate censorship issues are not new, this points to a larger need for transparency in content moderation.

“This is more a comment on how YouTube and other social media are moderating their platforms,” says Reddy, the lawyer quoted above. “If it’s so easy for companies to censor critical content, that’s the larger issue. Algorithms cannot distinguish between fair use and the copyright law.”

“On YouTube, it’s been an age-old issue over what is considered fair use and what is considered copyright,” agrees Shashidhar KJ, associate fellow, Observer Research Foundation, who specialises in technology and policy. “YouTube has a Content ID system where it tries to identify who owns the copyright and tries to give it to the rightful owner of the IP. This was primarily created for the music ecosystem, where record labels were asking for fair compensation for IP that they owned when people used their music. This controversy has been coming up a lot for legitimate criticism.”

“What’s happening with WHJ is sort of an abuse of the Content ID system,” he adds. “If you are reviewing or critiquing the company’s marketing, you would have to show the advertisement you are talking about. Technically, those ads are copyright of WHJ, and YouTube has to comply with this. The Content ID system is heavily skewed in favour of the IP holder.”

In response to Forbes India’s queries, a YouTube spokesperson sent this statement: "YouTube's copyright removal process complies with the applicable law. We strive to be fair to our users and protect their freedom of expression while also respecting the legal rights of copyright owners. Based on a copyright claim raised by a copyright owner or an agent authorised to act on their behalf, users have the option to file a counter notification when they believe their content has been removed as a result of a mistake, misidentification of the content, including fair use. The process further requires the claimant to provide evidence that they have initiated a court action within a specified timeline. In the event of any misuse of our process, we take it seriously and overturn removal decisions where we find evidence that a removal request was submitted without considering exceptions to copyright law such as fair use, fair dealing or other exceptions." 


Reddy adds that this is a good example of the limitations of social media. “It’s probably time to fall back on legacy media, and this highlights why old-school journalism and activism are so important in raising such issues,” he says.

This is a new issue in a sense, adds lawyer Nikhil Narendran, partner, Trilegal, as earlier, you had to go to court, get an order, and then get something pulled down. “Now, there are intermediaries controlling the flow of information using their community standards and guidelines,” he says. “Technically, they still need a court order, but due to commercial relationships with companies giving them so much advertising, they may move muscle to bring content down.”

“To my mind, if someone is losing here, it’s WhiteHat Jr,” he says. “I would never subscribe to a service for my kids that’s in the habit of bullying people, even kids. They’re losing a large amount of consumer goodwill when resorting to such tactics.”

Where does the debate go from here? Back to mainstream media, spreading information by word-of-mouth, and making parents aware of potential issues, experts say. “If you spread awareness on WhatsApp, it might be more difficult for WHJ to remove, because technically your messages are end-to-end encrypted,” Shashidhar KJ says.

Abhik Choudhury, marketing expert and chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting, says a big part of the flaw rests with the marketing campaigns, and the damage control could have been better handled.

“WhiteHat Jr is a relevant product that can truly make coding sexy in a way it never was. But here’s what it needs to do: Humbly accept the reality that it overdosed on advertising, go into product fine-tuning rehab and come back like a responsible leader who actually cares about the customer more than the sales target,” he says. “There is not a single historical evidence of a corporate doing the former who survived. In a category like education, respect needs to be earned. This category it is trying to build is certainly going to thrive, with or without them, and its standing will depend upon their ability to empathise.”