Friday, May 28, 2004

HETQ Online

Internet club -- 200 drams

[May 24, 2004]

You can see signs like that on every street corner in Yerevan . In spite of the increasing accessibility of computer technology, Internet cafes are getting more and more popular. Even people who have personal computers at home prefer to go online at a café—the Internet access is cheaper.

Opening an Internet café is not much harder than opening a regular café. You need to get a permit from the mayor to hang a sign, rent or buy premises, acquire computers (mostly Pentium 1, 2 or 3; sometimes Pentium 4), get access from an internet provider, register with the district tax agency, hire one or two pretty girls, no computer skills necessary, and open your doors to the public.

The Internet club “movement” started in 1999, with just a few cafes. The Internet still was a rare amusement, accessible to only a few, with an hourly charge of up to 1,800 drams (about $3.20). Since 2001, it's been much more accessible, at between 200 and 600 drams an hour. Club employees say the rates depend on many things, from the quality of the computers and the connection to the club's name, reputation, and location. Many Internet cafés are in students' neighborhoods, where there's no point in charging a high price.

Patrons are mainly college students, school children, and intellectuals. The oldest cafés have real clubs, with card-carrying members. A café can have as many as one hundred clients a day, who check their e-mail, chat and use ICQ, or surf the net. Children tend to arrive in groups, mostly to play computer games, and bigger clubs have a special game room. In general, the clubs provide unimpeded access in a private environment – computers are at a distance from each other, separated by partitions.

But this makes it easy to access and distribute pornographic material. Article 263 of the Criminal Code of Armenia stipulates that “the creation of computer programs, movies, video films, materials, pictures or other objects of a pornographic character, and for displaying child pornography using computers” is punishable by a fine or imprisonment. But it's not clear how this law is enforced.

Many clubs simply disregard it. “Why should we say, ‘Don't visit those sites'? We'll lose clients,” the manager of one club told me.

Others, mainly older clubs with good reputations, have certain restrictions, for example, they bar access to some sites, such as video pornography. The manager of one such club said, “We cannot control everything. There are sites that we don't know about, or that are impossible to block.” And when they find out that a client is visiting one of these sites, “We don't do anything. Do we have the right to say anything? They paid for it; they're adults, and they know what they're doing.”

They're adults, but what about children? Is there a way to protect them from these sites? Unfortunately not. One club positioned computers so that the screens were visible, but that keeps people from being able to use the Internet freely.

The fact is, providing free access to porn sites is profitable. Many users go to the Internet clubs just to visit them. Most clubs are open 24-hours a day. As one employee said, “It is hard to stop people—mainly boys—who come late at night to visit the sites.”

Ani Duzdabanyan

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