Criticism is not welcomed in India. Be it political parties, celebrities, businesses and society at general, we don’t want to be criticised. Startups are no exception. And a recent incident of an angel investor’s LinkedIn account getting “permanently restricted” for his views on a decacorn has raised a few eyebrows.
Aniruddha Malpani, a doctor and also an angel investor, was a prolific writer on LinkedIn on a wide range of topics covering the startup ecosystem and lately, publishing posts critical of edtech major Byju’s work culture, business model and user experience, among others.
Early this week, LinkedIn took action against Malpani’s account for his many posts on Byju’s. “LinkedIn has received a claim that alleges you have posted defamatory content. Due to the number of postings, LinkedIn has permanently restricted your account,” mentioned an email sent to Malpani by the professional network.
Malpani’s posts levelled various allegations against Byju’s, including its work culture and its product. His many posts were widely read and had comments from many users on LinkedIn. He also levelled allegations that Byju’s products aren’t progressive as it encourages students to cram for tests with “the myopic goal of scoring high marks.” (His posts can be read here).
Posts from influencers offering feedback or constructive criticism is crucial for shaping an evolving ecosystem but a majority of large-scale or even early-stage companies don’t like it at all, said an industry watcher who didn’t want to be named as this can hamper his professional relations.
Malpani claims to have no direct conflict of interest with Byju’s. He is an investor in Bibox, a startup that creates educational robotics kits for Atal Tinkering Labs in schools, and Byju’s has no similar product in its portfolio.
While it is not clear if Byju’s went on to complain against Malpani, he himself alleges that LinkedIn took the action on behalf of Byju’s. “I have been writing against work culture and misleading sales tactics by Byju’s. The company also took some of my concerns seriously and acted upon them,” Malpani told Entrackr.
“I am disappointed and disheartened by the action taken by LinkedIn for deleting my account under the pretext my posts about Byju’s were defamatory. If they are, they can always sue me. Why try to clamp down on my right to free speech?”
Byju’s did not offer a comment for this story.
The permanent restriction of Malpani’s account created a stir among people who observe and track the startup ecosystem closely. “Was I a blind follower? No, I disagreed with him on many topics in public. But sometimes his posts highlighted issues no one else was talking about. Now banning such a member sends out a totally wrong message. That you will crush any dissenting voice. And that, in the digital world, is a very scary thing. Black Mirror level scary,” wrote a bank executive on LinkedIn.
Voicing support in favour of Malpani, many people on Twitter and LinkedIn expressed their ire against Byju’s as well as LinkedIn. “Aniruddha Malpani got his LinkedIn account permanently banned. Where’s the freedom of speech?,” wrote Ravisutanjani Kumar, an edtech professional on LinkedIn.
Few others too (here, here and here) posted their views on Twitter and LinkedIn, a user even calling it an “unfair act”.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time LinkedIn has taken action against Malpani’s account. His account was previously suspended in May but was reinstated after two weeks. “At that time, LinkedIn said that I have been posting a lot about Coronavirus and these posts do not fall in line with WHO guidelines,” said Malpani.
This isn’t the first time Byju’s name has cropped up in a matter related to free speech. In May, Twitter had deleted a video in which a Byju’s manager was seen using foul language and high handedness against subordinates for not meeting sales targets.
Later Byju’s admitted that the video was indeed of its employee and it had fired the concerned manager.
This incident has brought to light a sharp divide on what constitutes free speech and what is defamation on social media. Clearly every platform has its policies that each user has to adhere to failing which their accounts can be restricted or suspended. But the larger question here is who will decide when that line has been crossed.