A court case application by DG Murray Trust (DGMT) to compel mobile network operator MTN to zero-rate the local educational websites of public benefit organisations (PBOs) was withdrawn on Monday, with the trust saying the mobile phone operator is now fully compliant.
The DG Murray Trust is a South African foundation committed to developing South Africa’s potential through public innovation and strategic investment.
The trust is represented by Dunster Attorneys Inc, which has applied to the Western Cape High Court for the case to be heard on 3 August 2020. Also read: MTN Faces Legal Challenge Over Zero-Rating PBOs Websites
The trust claimed that the Department of Basic Education approved a list of 39 PBO websites on 8 May 2020, and until last week, only Telkom and other fixed-line operators had zero-rated the PBO sites.
As of Monday 14 July 2020, Vodacom had zero-rated 19 of the sites. According to MTN, it has been instructed by the government to prioritise universities, TVET colleges and now schools – leaving the little prospect of zero-rating of PBOs for the foreseeable future.
DGMT launched the application on the grounds that the poorest children, who do not have access to online education in their schools but could benefit from the digital educational resources of PBOs, should not be pushed to the back of the queue in terms of the order in which websites are zero-rated.
After confirming its intention to defend, MTN’s lawyers (Webber Wentzel) then provided a letter to the trust’s legal counsel (Dunster Attorneys) confirming that all 39 websites would be zero-rated by the end of today (22 July 2020).
“We are thrilled with MTN’s accelerated action to zero-rate the websites of PBOs”, says Dr David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust.
“This means that many more poor children will have access to stories, language and maths. It is strong recognition that public benefit organisations play a crucial role in education in South Africa.”
On the basis of MTN’s response, the trust said it has notified MTN’s lawyers of its intention to withdraw its application.
The trust said it will keep monitoring the zero-rating of public benefit organisations to ensure full compliance by the all network operators.
Also read: MTN to Oppose DG Murray Trust’s Court Bid
Jacqui O’Sullivan, Corporate Affairs Executive at MTN, says the company is diligently working through the list of 980 approved URLs, but “the coding, vetting, and security checking process is complex and we can therefore only complete the zero-rating of a limited number of sites a week”.
She added that MTN’s efforts have been aligned with that of the government to ensure that students are able to access online educational resources to continue their studies during this difficult time.
“While we have zero-rated a number of public benefit websites our priority has been on schools, adding PBOs where possible.”
As mentioned previously, MTN along with the other operators is working with the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies to zero-rate the URLs that are approved through the PMO that have been formed by these two national departments.
The PMO first prioritised Universities and TVETs and has now directed the operators to prioritise schools.
“MTN has already zero-rated 648 URLs of the 980 approved by government with more being added each day. Any claims that MTN has not been responsive to the requests from government in this zero-rating project have been made in extraordinarily bad faith and are a misrepresentation of the facts,” O’Sullivan explained.
“On the day the DG Murray Trust (DGMT) chose to threaten MTN with legal action, the latest report to the PMO would have shown the DGMT that 8 of the 39 URLs had already been zero-rated, as part of the ongoing process.
“MTN is focused on supporting the people of South Africa through this pandemic and this zero-rating project requires much time, effort, focus and monitoring, to deliver successful results in the form of free access to health and education sites.”
Adds O’Sullivan: “This is where our attention needs to be focused, not dealing with a vexatious action that will waste the court’s time and therefore we have acceded to the demands of the DGMT, at the cost of the schools that had been scheduled to have been zero-rated in this period.
“We are doing all we can to make up those URLs so as not to disadvantage the schools that had to take a backseat to this matter. MTN is committed to continuing its work to zero-rate the URLs as approved by the government-directed PMO process and we will continue to do so, to the benefit of all South Africans.”