Over the last decade the cyber or internet-cafe has become ubiquitous. They can be found in every town and a good many villages and range from the well-appointed and downright luxurious to sleazy hole-in-wall operations that invite the attention of the law-enforcement agencies. Thus far there has been no regulation attached to the setting up and running of an internet cafe but that may be about to change, at least in Punjab. The Punjab government has proposed to enact the Punjab Cyber and Gaming Cafe (Regulation) Act 2012. This can be a significant and, if passed, a powerful piece of legislation. It will require owners of internet cafes to register with an as yet unnamed regulatory body and maintain a log of visitors and users. It stipulates the layout of all internet cafés — and failure to comply with all of these requirements will result in the premises being sealed and/or a swingeing fine of Rs50,000 for minor deviations and Rs100,000 for more major transgressions. Cyber cafes will have to comply with minimum standards in terms of floor-plan and layout which means an end to private browsing and limited access to pornography.
Once again the moral police are in action. Whilst it is undeniable that many people use internet cafes for less than pure purposes, it is also true that they are for many, particularly young people, the only ‘private space’ they ever have access to. Privacy is at a premium in our society, as is freedom of speech, and although there may be merit — and public support — for internet cafes limiting access to pornographic websites over and above the limitations and censorship already imposed by the government since November 2011; there are concerns about the oversight of all material, pornographic or otherwise, being viewed by the customer. The state already requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to hold copies of all emails for a minimum of 15 days and that they be accessible to agencies of the state as required. The argument of justification is that other states do the same and it is a useful tool in the fight against terrorism. That may be so — but the emails of everybody? Opening the browsing habits of all internet users in public cafes is a move fraught with pitfalls, not the least being in this most intolerant of societies the possibility — nay, probability — of somebody seeing what they deem ‘objectionable’ content, making a protest and before we know it there is a lynching in progress. The new legislation is a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and broadens the already considerable powers of censorship that reside in the hands of the state. A step-by-step approach to check the misuse of internet cafes may be more in order.