When Iran closed down hundreds of cybercafés in May, it would have been easy for outside observers to assume the countrys authoritarian government was trying to stifle access to pornography or dissenting views on the Internet.
But it may have had as much to do with economics, observers say, as any strong desire to limit Iranians access to information banned by the Islamic government.
Such public Internet cafés are popular in countries such as Iran and China because they offer cheap access to the Internet — and even long-distance voice service over the Net — for those who may not have a computer or other means of getting online. They also provide some users with their only way to anonymously surf unauthorized content or communicate with others.
But in recent months, Iran has been only one of several countries clamping down on Internet cafés for a variety of reasons. In July, China closed 2,000 Internet cafés and ordered 6,000 others to suspend their activities and make changes to their businesses. Many were cited for not having licenses or forallowing access to unauthorized information, according to news reports.
New rules against Internet cafés have also been floated in Taiwan in an effort to control childrens access to video games and pornography. Authorities in Malaysia have also proposed restrictions on cybercafés for similar reasons. Controls on Internet cafés have been imposed in several other countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates, according to Jagdish Parikh, an online research associate at Human Rights Watch. And in Afghanistan, the government led by the hard-line Taliban movement, which strictly follows Islamic law, has banned its citizens from accessing the Internet at all.
While restrictions on and closures of Internet cafés may hamper Net access for some users in the short term, such moves are unlikely to hurt the cafés popularity down the road. Pyramid Research, an international technology research firm, gives an estimate of 75,000 Internet cafés in China and about 1,600 in Iran.
"In the long term, there is no way of keeping the Internet down," says Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International, a technology policy and management consulting firm. Trying to shut down or restrict Internet cafés is like playing "whack-a-mole," he says. When one is eliminated, another simply pops up to replace it.
Still, some governments are struggling to balance the knee-jerk urge to crack down on cybercafés — and the unfettered access to outside news and entertainment they offer — with a desire to harness the economic potential they see that comes with the Internet and other new technologies.
"Its like Prohibition. If you close them . . . you wont have this problem," says James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. But, he says, countries that shut down cybercafés "have this potential economic cost. Its better to have something in the open that you can control and monitor."
Many observers are quick to note that government restrictions on and closures of Internet cafés are not based only on censorship. In Iran and some other countries, the government-owned telephone monopolies may see Internet cafés as a competitive threat.
" Crackdowns on Internet cafés, where people make diverse uses of telephone capacity, are among a repertoire of strategies that phone service authorities use to bring Internet cafés within their paradigms of use and revenue," says sociocultural anthropologist Jon Anderson, of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who has studied the use of new technologies and media in the Arab world.
The Iranian government, for example, did not shut down all Internet cafés — only those with high-speed connections. Most of those have since reopened, says Joseph Braude, Pyramids senior analyst for the Middle East.
Kaveh Tabatabaee, who runs a cybercafé in Tehran, says business has continued as normal. "We are open and have no pressure to close our cybercafé, and all of our customers can find every site they need," Tabatabaee wrote in an e-mail.
While its difficult to determine the primary motives for the recent closures in Iran, analysts say the government-controlled telephone monopoly appears to have been involved. Prior to the crackdowns, the telephone company reported losing revenue to Internet cafés that offered customers cheaper long-distance phone service over the Internet, Braude says.
Even in China, there "may be a profit motive" in closing cafés in some areas and forcing them to obtain licenses to reopen, says Shanthi Kalathil of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who recently co-authored a report on state control of the Internet in China and Cuba.
Nevertheless, there are strong elements within some governments that continue to see the Internet as a cultural and political threat.
Iran has proposed new rules for ISPs and cybercafés that would, among other things, require them to block access to pornography and other "immoral" content, information from banned groups and political parties, and material critical of Islam.
Since China first allowed commercial Internet accounts in the mid-1990s, Parikh says, the government has produced a steady stream of regulations aimed at controlling content. But he adds that Chinese officials have been shifting enforcement of such rules to cybercafé owners, ISPs and content providers.
Others say that the closures and new restrictions on cybercafés in China and other countries may be designed as warnings to owners to keep a better eye on what their customers are viewing on the Internet.
"They arent just going to shut them down" for good, says Taylor Boas, one of the Carnegie Endowments project managers and Kalathils co-author. He says the goal might be to force Internet cafés to get relicensed or "to remind them whos in control."
International analysts agree that cybercafés play an important role in developing countries, where most citizens do not have access to the Internet at home or work.
In most developing countries, "very few can afford to buy their own computer, and access to the Internet from home is far from being affordable by most people," Parikh says. "In this situation, Internet cafés are like public access telephone booths, mostly for urban populations, in these countries. They provide somewhat affordable access to intercity or international communications, and easy access to up-to-date scientific and other knowledge."
Internet cafés are popular in China among students, even those who may have access to the Internet through their schools but may be limited to Chinese sites alone, says Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow of the Pacific Council for International Policy. Similarly, Irans large youth population sees cybercafés as a venue to gain access to entertainment and ideas from the outside world. In fact, in Iran and other countries, Internet cafés are growing at a faster rate than the government can control them, many observers say.
"These governments are not really very efficient and technically skilled. And they sort of see this wave coming. . . . Theyre not sure how big it is and not sure how fast its moving and what they can do," says Jon Alterman, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington-based organization funded by Congress that promotes peaceful resolutions to international conflicts. "I think a lot of what they do is not very strategic or planned. They are not sure about dealing with a paradigm shift like this."