Feeling the brunt of constant changes in technology and internet trends, ‘net cafes’ across the country have been resorting to questionable ways to earn revenue over the past few years.
A majority of the internet cafes, particularly the discreet kind located in small alleys, are left with little option but to promote pornographic material in order to lure customers.
When internet was a novelty in the late 1990s, the country experienced an exponential growth of internet cafes. Customers were charged high rates to have online access which ensured a sizeable profit margin to net cafe owners.
But that changed with the introduction of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) in 2002. Once people had faster and more reliable connection to the internet in the comfort of their homes, cyber cafes were only visited for services like printing or scanning. As a result, the number of cafes that had mushroomed across the country began to decline.
A huge controversy involving a Rawalpindi internet cafe in 2002 was a further setback to net cafe owners in the twin cities. The cafe owner was involved in secretly filming videos of its customers’ activities, most of whom were couples sitting in private booths. These video recordings were then used to blackmail the customers and their families. The incident added a dimension of filth to internet cafes, causing many people to avoid them altogether.
Talking to the The Express Tribune, Amir Latif, owner of a net cafe in Rawalpindi, said that currently, cyber cafes earn revenue through scanning and printing services, depending on factors such as the academic season or their proximity to a school or office. But the smaller ones scattered about the twin cities mostly rely on enticing young students with unrestrained online access to pornographic material.
Jibran Hussain, owner of an internet cafe in Shamsabad, Rawalpindi, has been entertaining customers for the past five years, a majority of whom are students who visit the cafe primarily to watch pornography. Muneer Hussain, a student of grade 10, said he was a regular customer at the cafe and comes even during his school hours.
Another worker at the net cafe said providing online access to pornography is the most viable source of income for internet cafes these days. Charging the rate of Rs15 per hour for the facility, he said the cafe is packed with customers especially from 8pm to 12am.
“The police are well aware of the practice but do not interfere since we pay them monthly,” he added.
No data is available on the exact number of net cafés in Rawalpindi and Islamabad at the moment, according Ammar Jaferi , director general cyber crime cell, Federal Investigative Agency (FIA). Monitoring these net cafes is also not high on the authorities’ priority list. Fakhir Ali, who had to close down his café during the 2004 slump, said that opening net cafes in Pakistan was easy as there is no regulatory authority to issue licenses.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) spokesperson Khuram Mehran said the responsibility of monitoring cyber cafes rested with the Ministry of Information and Technology. But officials of the ministry said that they were only responsible for drafting policies, with the monitoring process lying under the jurisdiction of PTA.
Monitoring the content provided at the cafes is the responsibility of the DCO and DPO, who raid these cafes only when someone lodges a complaint.
“If a net café is caught providing pornographic material, the owner is punished according to the Motion Pictures Act,” according to Sarfaraz Ahmed, advocate high court. He also added that police officials get monthly payments from net café owners.
DG Cyber Crime Cell, FIA, added that according to PTA rules, net café owners are bound to maintain the record of all customers. But majority of the net cafe owners do not follow this, he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2010.