Social network Badoo is banned in Iran

Badoo, a social network popular in emerging markets like Russia and Brazil, has been banned in Iran. As of December 2009 Badoo says it had broken the 50 million user mark globally, with 250,000 of those coming from Iran. Pictured is the text that comes up when trying to access Badoo from inside Iran.

Badoo runs a fine line between a social network and a dating or (more accurately) a flirting site, but it is not at all political. It may be this flirtatious aspect of the site which has inflamed the ire of the strict Islamic authorities – however, there has been no official reason given.

In January 2008 Badoo pulled in $30m from Russian investor Finam for a 10% stake. The money was to build the service in Russia and other emerging markets.

The site had been been working with mobile network Turkcell, which has ties to Irancell, Iran’s predominant mobile network. Because Badoo’s social system is based largely on premium SMS, it sent its payment services through Irancell. However, the current politics over the site’s ban has stalled this operation. Badoo is currently trying to come up with a plan to circumvent the ban to reach its users again.

Michael Geer, CEO and co-founder of the London-based startup, told me: “We first noticed numbers dropping quickly and then a flood of support emails coming in. Which is impressive since the feedback could only come from users that had prior contact with our customer support.” He says there has been no official statement and no reason given. “For the first time in our site’s existence, we are being completely blocked by a market’s government. I don’t know whether to be pissed off or honored!” he added.

The text above appears to have been posted by which appears to be an arm of the Iranian government.

Badoo emphasises photos and flirting and avoids advertising – instead it bases its business model on a set of premium features. These mostly involve the user paying a small fee via premium SMS to gain more attention to his or her profile on the site. The more you text in, the more your profile is promoted to other users. Simple really.

As such, Badoo turns out to be pretty suited to emerging markets since it is so SMS driven – something which is largely ubiquitious in Iran, and especially when mobile Web access is almost impossible. With a huge number of the population still under 30 years old, Iran is in fact a ripe network for early-adopting young people who have grown up with mobile phones and – albeit limited – internet access. The rise of the use of Twitter there during the recent wave of political protests has been well documented.

Of course, Internet censorship in Iran is not news.

According to the The Committe Against Censorship In Iran (Google translate version, @proxyiran) software and tech companies based in Iran like like Gostar Sharif and Pars Online, the biggest Internet service provider in the country, are largely complicit with the Iranian government in the censorship of web sites hosted outside the country.