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Business  19, Jun 2014

Ashley Madison CEO talks life after ban in Singapore, South Korea

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This pro-adultery website might have been blocked in both Singapore and South Korea, but it does not mean people aren’t accessing it anymore

“They (the Government) might have disrupted our business, but they haven’t disrupted infidelity,” said Noel Biderman, CEO, Ashley Madison, in conversation with e27.

Founded in 2001, the Canada-based pro-adultery platform was banned in Singapore last November. In an earlier interview, he told this author that Asia is “not too conservative” and “not too challenging,” as the firm had seen success in Japan and Hong Kong. However, in April 2014, South Korea decided that Ashley Madison should go.

For background, marital infidelity is a crime in South Korea, and as such, spouses found guilty are liable to serve a prison sentence of up to two years, reported TIME, even though most offenders are released with a metaphorical slap on the wrist. In Singapore, adultery is not a crime but constitutes one of the grounds for divorce.

Currently, the site has 135,751 members and 18,326 daily active users in South Korea, and 25,318 members and 5,114 daily active users in Singapore. While users are not able to access Ashley Madison in these two countries, they can easily bypass with a VPN account, and still set their current location as South Korea or Singapore.

“All you do is create workarounds,” he said, adding that such bans do not deter people from having extra-marital affairs or even accessing Ashley Madison.

He also shared his suspicions that the South Korean ban might not have happened if not for Singapore setting the precedent. After all, the city-state was the first country in the world to blatantly oppose Ashley Madison and its operations with an outright ban. “That’s the danger of the Singapore ban… I didn’t want other countries taking the same action,” he told this author.

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He further opined that Ashley Madison is “a communications platform,” and that the authorities cannot prove sexual interaction between members. Even when challenged with the argument that the firm’s tagline — “Life is short. Have an affair” — promotes infidelity, Biderman retorted, “I’m allowed to say a tagline.” After all, six words do not make a cheater.

Even though Singapore and South Korea have proved challenging, Ashley Madison has found love in Japan. Within eight and a half months, it was reported to have hit a million users in the archipelago. However, Biderman has worries about whether the expansion into Asia was well-calculated.

The amount of time, effort and money invested in fighting these markets, and winning them over while being so vehemently opposed, has been extraordinary for Ashley Madison. In other countries, the firm has advertised on various channels including television commercials during female-centric programmes, radio, controversial billboard advertisements and direct marketing. The site might have its own Facebook page, but it’s safe to say that its advertising dollars are still not welcomed on the social media giant.

“At the end of the day, I’m not Samsung, I’m not Apple,” he shared, explaining that he has already spent millions trying to attract users in these markets. Furthermore, he does not see this sort of harsh censorship being applied to sites of similar nature. “If the government decides to censor our business… it is selective censorship. They have chosen to make an example (of us). … But they don’t seem to want to block other similar sites. Where is the discourse? … It’s a policy of one,” he added.

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Many have asked about how Ashley Madison generates revenue. While women can use the site and enjoy all features for free, men have to pay in order to contact women and send virtual gifts, according to Motherboard’s Vice. This sort of business model (men pay, women free) is not at all foreign or peculiar; it has long been employed in nightclubs and other dating services. If anything, it is a gold mine for Ashley Madison, which pulled in US$125 million in revenue, and US$40 million in profits last year.

Now, life after the ban in Singapore and South Korea might have caused Ashley Madison to see a drop in potential revenue in those markets. However, people who want to access the site will still find ways to do so. “If you see how many people are still trying to login, … I have evidence that there is a massive appetite,” concluded Biderman.

Elaine Huang

Elaine Huang

Elaine is a fervent believer that if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, we will all be snapping away at them with our phones and posting them onto Instagram. A Mass Communication graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies, she enjoys writing about technology and entrepreneurs. When not hashtagging her way through all sorts of trouble, Elaine is probably contemplating how to write in the third person.

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