The Secret Lives of Internet Cafes

in homistan

Net cafés do amazing business in Pakistan. In the 80s, the easiest way to keep your wayward son employed was to open up a PCO (Public Call Office) in the neighborhood. You rent a shop, install a phoneline, a desk and a chair. People come and pay you 10 rupees to make a phone call. Easy money.

Those PCOs were converted into internet access points (no beverages are served on premises) by late 90s. In 1998, a rough survey of Lahore produced an average on 10-12 cafés per neighborhoods. Now, that ratio is to one per street.

Surfing for information for yesterday’s post, I came across this editorial in Jang Daily from April 28th. It told a story of internet, sex and exploitation gone horribly wrong (as opposed to all the times it goes wonderfully right, i guess). I translate:

These Net Cafés by Jawaid Chaudhry

In a Rawalpindi market, two years ago, someone set up a Net CafÈ; he constructed small cabins, placed computers in them, put a screen door with locks on the inside, installed lights in the ceiling and hidden in the lights, installed cameras. After the grand opening, young men and women started to patronize the establishment. They came alone or as couples, went into the cabins and viewed “dirty” websites on the computers. The owners of the establishment recorded these activities and would later show the movies to the couples and blackmail them for dirty deeds. This carried on until around 25 couples were ensared. A CD was compiled and send to Dubai where it sold for 10 lakh (about $100,000). Copies were made and sold in Britain, US, France and Germany and finally, made their way back home. In the beginning, these CDs were sold for four or five thousand rupees in Lahore and Islamabad. A gang got hold of the CD and tracked down the 25 families of the couples. They delivered the CDs to those houses. This caused an instant firestrom. Three of the girls in the scandal committed suicide. One was killed by her father. Two were divorced . While the boys ran away from their houses. Some of the young men on the CD belonged to very prominent families of Rawalpindi. These houses fell prey to blankmailing from the gang.

One of the elders from these families came to me. His only child had killed herself. He was in extremely fragile condition. He told me the whole story and cried that these monsters have destroyed entire families. Please tell the government to take pity on us and stop the violence permeated in the guise of technology. The gentleman left me and I don’t know if he is still alive or not but his problem remains genuine. There are thousands of Net Cafés in this country. Most have cabins. Young boys and girls from colleges and universities go to these cafés, open “dirty” sites and embark on the path of sin and destruction where many blackmailers are sitting. If the Government pays serious attention, this can be resolved easily. There are thousands of software in the world that eliminate obscene websites. The Pakistan government should install these filters on all internet services, register all Net Cafés, issue license of operations, impound unlicensed sites, and ban the use of cameras in all such facilities. In the meantime, all cabins should be abolished. Proprieters should be told to prohibit morally corrupt sites and movies on the premises and teams of enforcers should tour and arrest non-compliant owners.

Someone else was telling me that some stores have installed cameras in their “try rooms”. Some export these films overseas and exploit the children. The government should also pass laws against cameras in changing rooms. Places where cameras are installed should notify the customers via a public sign board. I have seen many places in Europe, America and Canada where they are installed as traffic camers. In USA, it is against the law to record any image or movie without permission even voice recording. In America, even a president, Richard Nixon, lost his government when he secretly taped his opponents but there os no such laws in our country. People have put secret cameras and recorders everywhere and their phone calls even are taped and used later for blackmail. No one knows how many houses have been destroyed by this.

[i snip the rest]

The interesting thing here is that the author, in the case of Net Cafés, wants to regulate the internet itself but, in the case of changing rooms, is satisfied with laws against hidden cameras. Presumably, the same law against hidden recording should solve the Café crime as well as the changing room crime.

The divergence in his solution comes from an old-and-tried argument that television, cinema, western books (and now the internet) are mere conduits of sin and depravity for the youth of Pakistan. The corruption occurs by mere exposure. Hence, the lack of appropriate laws is not enough as the depravity will continue in the Café. They argue, that what needs to happen is a control over the flow of unchecked smut. In case of Pakistan, that means regulating the internet, in case of USA, it means going to the source.

I also want to state that the blackmailing industry hinted at in the editorial is, without a doubt, prevalent and pernicious in segments of the population. It is largely due to the fact that even a rumor can destroy the life of girl. Families have no choice but to comply with the blackmailers to prevent something like that from happening. The way to break that hold is to shift the blame from the victim to the oppressors. A girl who dates, or has an affair is not Evil Incarnate. She should NOT be killed or stoned. sigh.

P.S. While looking around for information on the Pakistani Net Café scene, I got this entry by a pakistani blogger also looking at the same issue – and more here.

update [May 24, 2004]:I am going to temporarily suspend comments on this entry as the discourse seems to be in a downward spiral of righteous religiosity and morally-sanctioned retribution. To be frank, I am quite disturbed by some of these comments and almost deleted them. However, I will let them stand to testify to the shamelessly premodern conceptions of an individual human still prevalent in Pakistani society.

update: comments are reopened but please keep moralizing to a minimum.

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