Logic is Variable

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Net Cafes

Internet cafes have played a visible role in promoting internet usage. It is a public place where people can use a computer with internet access for an affordable fee. Café may or may not serve as a conventional café. Besides internet connection, a number of cafes also provide other services such as printing, scanning, CD viewing and burning. Some even conduct internet training classes for beginners. The word is that some of the cafes around the world are being used for activities much beyond their scope.

Eva Pascoe, a PhD student while sitting in the coffee shop of London City University conceived and decided "to put a permanent PC connection in a coffee shop and link it to internet."

Cyberia, the world's first internet cafe, was opened in London's Whit field Street in Sept, 1994. Earlier in 1991, SFNet, the prototype of the present internet cafe, has started in the US. After only a decade, cyber or net cafes found places world wide. Most people use them to access their email accounts, chat, play games, search, and surf or do other things online. In this day and age, in more connected countries, there are also Wi-fi cafes, or in other words hotspots, where users can connect their laptops, notebooks or PDAs using the cafe's wireless access to internet.

Justly or unjustly, the freewheeling internet access in cyber cafes embodies both hopes and fears at a time: internet connectivity and usage is anticipated as central to long-term economic interests and development by every one and is encouraged. Fears are that unsupervised or unguided children can browse pornographic, violence, and other perniciousinfo sites, or they can become centres of some other nefarious activities and places where youngsters hang around and spend time in unproductive activities. Besides, terrorists and cyber criminals can take advantage of these cafes as they provide multiple layers of protection like public call offices.

In a latest study of "terrorism and the internet", United States' counter terrorism analyst Gabriel Weimann noted "that cyberspace has advantages for terrorist groups. First is easy access from anywhere to a very large audience around the world. The report says, "You don't even need a computer; you can just go to a public library . . . or, you can go to an internet café. There is no control, no regulation, and no laws. Nobody is censoring the messages."

Cafes provide complete anonymity. "You can sit in a coffee shop, an internet café in London, use a server in South Africa and send a message to North America, without anybody being able to trace it," he adds.

With increase in criminal activities online, discipline of cyber laws emerged some four years ago. By now more than 30 nations including the Central Asian States, China, Cuba, France, India, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore and United States have cyber laws in place, though all may be having different inten t. Some other countries - Australia, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Syria - have blocked pornographic sites. Gambling sites are outlawed in South Korea.

Internet café business has remained a flourishing cottage industry that requires relatively little investment. So far they have not been regulated and it is unlikely to change anytime soon,specially in the developed world. Recently, there has been a strident crackdown on net cafes in China which resulted in shutting down thousands of unlicenced cafes across the country to restrict "juveniles to enter or allowing unhealthy information to spread through internet followed by Indian government's crackdown on net café where the owners were asked "to ensure that the net cafes are not used for viewing pornography. The law is enshrined in the Information Technology Act, 2000, emailed Lubna, a journalist from India.

Vietnam government has also issues a decree (number 55) ordering net cafes to register with the Internet Services Providers. A foreign news agency has recently reported (and the story was run by many international publications) that "cyber cafes in Pakistan will soon be made accountable as the government is all set to draft a law to regulate their activities."

Consider this in order to see the relevance of any regulation for net cafes in the context of Pakistan?

Comparatively, few users can afford computers and telephone line at home in the country and an overwhelming majority go online in the net cafes where they can enjoy inexpensive services incognito. Not only that, some of those who have a net connection at home also visit the cafes.

The IT-hype created public demand that helped net café to come up in every nook and corner of towns and cities, wherever net access is available. They are of different types; high-end and cool places with comfortable working environment in posh localities or noisy and smoke chocked cubby-holes in back alleys. Those with work stations in cabins with chains, behind partition walls, monitors screens facing walls where others cannot see or in open where every one can see whatever is on others' monitors.

So far there are no comprehensive cyber laws to deal with the issues and the legal consequences on internet, the World Wide Web and cyberspace in Pakistan. Given the nature of internet, execution of any cyber law anywhere in the world is a big question mark.

Earlier, government's abortive effort to ban pornography sites in Pakistan is one case in point. But if the situation demands, making the cyber cafes accountable for the collective good of our society should not be impossible. That said; let us see what major concerns are when it comes to regulating local net cafes? What do café owners and users think about any regulation? And who will implement the law if and when it is made?

Privacy and civil liberties are generally mirrored in all discussions when it comes to controlling any aspect of internet. How privacy, civil rights and personal freedom is threatened if net cafes are run under some standard rules? Does viewing what is on others' screen endanger the basic civil liberties of others and who wants to do that? Does showing personal ID before using net facilities at public computers is a breach of privacy? Or is anonymity - using a public facility without leaving any traces to be tracked back - being categorized as privacy?

In the context of net cafés, privacy can be defined as "the state or quality of being secluded from the view and or presence of others," reads RSA Laboratories site.

Amjad Iqbal Sindhu, an advocate Lahore High Court says, "Individuals are entitled to keep to themselves what they do online or offline unless some special situation like public interest in general demands otherwise. In a civilized society, no body has the right whatsoever to snoop over others." He quoted English philosopher John Stuart Mill as saying that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Public places are not the best spots for privacy. "Imagine what ordinary users do when they log on; they check email and fire off replies, chat, surf some sites, brows or play games. What is there to be secretive or cautious about? However, cafes may be registered with some central authority. Seating arrangements in them should be open - screen facing outwards. This alone will clear so many doubts about the policy of any café and will define the kind of crowd that gathers there," adds Sindhu.

Café owners and proprietors think that any kind of restriction in usage or asking patrons to show and record their identities will adversely affect their business.

"This is not the best way to track back miscreants. Any one up to some thing bad can sure outmanoeuvre such barriers. Big worry is that will any rule shift the onus of customers' actions on café owners or will we be made accomplice if and when something wrong happens," says Tanvir Ahmad, a manager of "open policy" cafe in Gulgasht Colony Multan.

Imran Nazir is able to make his living through net café, despite "open policy" with all work stations in semi circle facing outwards plus cold drinks and tea, because "I am located near the University of the Punjab hostels and my clients are mostly serious student who come here for preparing their assignments. I try to provide them with an academic atmosphere in the cafe. They search, brows, download documents and get required material printed or save it on their floppy disks for later use. Or they sit her and compose their assignments," he says. On the other hand, some customers go to the cafés only for viewing porno sites or to have long sessions of chats; every one knows that.

A proprietor of the café in Lahore confessed, "I have some regular clients who can hardly read or write English but they have learnt to operate computers and internet. What do you think they do online? Stop them and they will go find another cafe. If the government has to ban pornographic sites, ISPs should be regulated and not the net cafes."

Qamar uz Zaman Khan, an owner of a cafe in Multan told, "The scene in net cafes in Multan is no different than any other city in the country. Some 70 to 80 per cent of the visitors come for entertainment whereas only 20 per cent visit for educational pursuits. Most of the visitors are male; young boys. In posh areas, however, female students are also seen visiting."

After the Rawalpindi scandal (I still get maxium search queries leading to this page about Rawalpindi Internet Scandal), the city administration here is already asking the café owners to adopt open policy and remove all partitions. Qamar suggests that separate "female only cafes" should be opened instead of removing the partitions.

Users' response to any kind of restriction in net use is mixed one. When asked some say there is no harm while some other say they will not go to the cafes if every time they have to enter identification particulars and sign a register of attendance. Given the lax law enforcement in the country, any rule is likely to be neglected both by the cyber cafe walas as well as the users," comments Tanvir Ahmad.

"I travel to different places all over the country in connection with my work and have to use net cafes to stay in constant touch with my company. I use the nearest cyber café where ever I happen to be. I will revert back to telephone if some legal procedures are introduced to use the cafes," says Fazal Qureshi, a sale representative of greeting cards publishing house. He starts from Lahore and tours the country with card albums, takes the orders from books and card sellers and sends them back to the company. He adds, "I do not want to get into legalities later on."

One more concern that was voiced during scouting is the authority that will regulate the net cafes and how. Any agency which is entrusted with the responsibility to oversee that PCs and internet are not misused at public places have to be tech savvy and should be able to stay current on technologies that are changing every day. The civil police force is not organized for such technical jobs. "Police certainly cannot do that," thinks Iqbal Sindhu.

Cyber cafés have contributed great value to spread net usage in Pakistan. If they have to be standardized, serious issues like privacy and human rights should be given due considerations when suggesting any ways internet cafés should be run and managed across the country. The matter should be discussed thoroughly between café owners and the government at an appropriate level. There should be an open and extensive public debate on the subject. The consensus should be build before any regulation is enforced. Or else we may be poised to lose a budding business and reduced Internet users' base in the country. The choice is ours.

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ 7:04 PM,


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