Sunday, March 05, 2006

Order in the Orient: the Intenet Café story

The Orient is a strange place for Internet Cafés. A few years ago, after a fire killed several patrons of a Chinese internet café, China announced that it was going to make illegal internet cafés illegal. It was not clear to me how they intended to do that.

When I was in China in 2002, there were cafés in every neighbourhood, almost all illegal, since they didn't impose the Chinese proxy that bans Falun Gong, most human rights sites, all Western news, in fact, almost everything except for the official Chinese government sites. I didn't actually see any legal cafés in China, but I saw the legal Chinese Internet from a friend's office, and nothing was available, at least nothing I cared to see.

So everyone was using the illegal, prohibited cafés in 2002. These cafés were already quite illegal and prohibited in 2002, so how they could be made illegal and prohibited in 2003, as the Chinese government announced, I do not know.

***

Dubai is full of internet cafés, but announced on 1 March that it intends to crack down on illegal activities by insisting only people with a photo ID will be allowed to surf. The café must keep a copy of the photo ID and the time of surfing, so the government can track down malefactors.

The government is correct in its suspicions: almost half the people in Dubai internet cafés are engaging in felonious activities. No, not phishing nor spamming, nor plotting terrorist activities, they are making phone calls (a few are viewing porn).

The law for the entire UAE requires that all phone calls must be routed through the Official Phone Company, and all phone calls outside the GCC are charged around €1 per minute. Meanwhile, internet VOIP companies charge around €0.01 per minute to the US, Western Europe, and China, and around €0.25 to almost everywhere else.

[The other half of the users, the legal half, have learned that it's even cheaper if their families and friends also go to an internet café to talk, where they can use Yahoo or MSN and have a perfectly legal video chat, but the illegal half are calling unsophisticated friends and parents who only understand how to answer the telephone.]

The Official Government Phone Company (soon to be one of two Official Government Phone Companies, for reasons which escape me) estimates that it is losing millions every year to illegal internet phone calls. I'm guessing that's a huge underestimate.

As of current date, this police move to stamp out illegal internet café activity is only a threat on the horizon: no internet café is currently demanding a photo ID and taking a copy before issuing a workstation--the only photo ID required now is the photo that appears on banknotes--but most of these threats eventually come to pass. Sort of.

A few years ago, Dubai announced that unlicensed taxis were banned. I still found plenty who would transport me for around 1/4 of what licensed taxis would charge. Then, one day, I got into an unlicensed taxi, and the police pulled us over. I was ordered to engage a licensed taxi (which I did), and, as we drove away, I saw the unlicensed taxi driver being herded into a black Maria. After that, I couldn't find an unlicensed taxi for months.

Then they all returned, in numbers comparable to what they'd been before the ban, except that they'd raised their fees.

Prediction:

1. The requirement for photo IDs in all Internet cafés is announced.
2. Some cafés comply, and lose half their customers. Most do not, and the ones who started to collect photo IDs soon abandon the practice, only asking for a photo ID if they think a customer is really a cop. All cafés put up their prices.
3. One cafe owner and/or employees is/are arrested for not collecting photo IDs, and an illegal internet phone user is also arrested, based on the phone company detecting illegal activity and arresting him based on his photo ID at the internet café. Both arrests are displayed prominently on the front pages of the local newspapers, and both felons are given longer prison sentences than murderers or rapists, since their sentences are intended as object lessons.
4. Some internet café comply, and lose half their customers, but most do not, and the ones who do soon abandon the practice, only asking for a photo ID if they think a customer is really a cop. All cafés put up their prices.
5. A few more internet callers and café owners and/or employees are arrested, some for public display, some quietly because they were particularly irritating to some government official. Most cafés put this down as a cost of doing business. Passing this cost on to customers, they all raise their prices.

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