A Gurugram court has summoned Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma in a case in which a former employee, Pushpandra Singh Parmar who worked as associate director at the UC Web office in Gurugram until October 2017, said he was wrongfully fired after objecting to what he saw as censorship and fake news on company apps. Parmar has sought $268,000 in damages.
In court filings dated July 20 seen by Reuters, Parmar, had alleged the company used to censor content seen as unfavourable to China and its apps UC Browser and UC News showcased false news “to cause social and political turmoil.”
In more than 200 pages of court filings, Parmar included clippings of some posts showcased on the UC News app that he alleged were false.
One post from 2017 was headlined in Hindi, “2,000-rupee notes to be banned from midnight today.” Another headline of a 2018 post said, “Just now: War broke out between India and Pakistan” and contained a description of firing across the disputed border between the countries.
The lawsuit also contains a “sensitive words list” with keywords in Hindi and English like “India-China border” and “Sino-India war” that the court filing alleges were used by UC Web to censor content on its platforms in India.
“In order to control any news related content to be published against China was automatically/manually rejected by an audit system evolved for this purpose,” the filing said.
Civil Judge Sonia Sheokand of a district court in Gurugram, has issued summons for Alibaba, Jack Ma and about a dozen individuals or company units, asking them to appear in court or through a lawyer on July 29, court documents showed.
The judge has also sought written responses from the company and its executives within 30 days, according to the summons.
Parmar served Associate Director post at UCWeb / UC News between August 2016 to November 2017.
Meanwhile, UC India told Inc42 said that it had been “unwavering in its commitment to the India market and the welfare of its local employees, and its policies are in compliance with local laws. We are unable to comment on ongoing litigation.”
Before the apps were banned, the UC Browser had been downloaded at least 689 Mn times in India, while UC News had 79.8 Mn downloads, most during 2017 and 2018, data from analytics firm Sensor Tower showed. The company had 130 Mn monthly active users in India — besides browsing, it engaged with users through content discovery partnerships with media companies. A Linkedin search indicates that 56 people are employed at UC Browser in India. While, the news aggregation platform UC News which came integrated with the UC Browser has 50 Mn global users.
The case comes weeks after India cited security concerns in banning Alibaba’s UC News, UC Browser and 57 other Chinese apps after a clash between the two countries’ forces on their border.
Following the ban, which China has criticised, the government sought written answers from all affected companies, including whether they censored content or acted for any foreign government.
Alibaba has been one of the most prominent investors in the Indian startup ecosystem having backed Indian unicorns like Zomato, BigBasket among others.
Chinese tech giant Alibaba reportedly has temporarily paused all new investment to review its India strategy.
It has also invested in Paytm Mall, BigBasket, Snapdeal and Xpressbees. But now, with declining revenue and user base for Snapdeal and Paytm Mall, the Chinese company is reportedly disappointed with its investments due to their limited user base.
The Previous Strategy
A shift in Alibaba’s strategy has been in speculation for a while. In May 2019, Alibaba was reportedly reviewing its policies to focus on more small scale deals. The company planned to take a more judicious approach with smaller ticket sizes and early stage deals.
Alibaba focussed on sectors that have a high-frequency use case and a high-level of user friendly investment. This was the main reason the company invested in digital payment company Paytm and grocery app BigBasket.
Alongside Ant Financial, Alibaba has also launched a $100 Mn venture capital fund called BAce Capital for which it has also onboarded a separate team.
Alibaba’s affiliated ANT Financial’s Indian portfolio includes digital payments platform Paytm and food aggregator Zomato, among others.