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Hot on the Web

Paranoia and the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 4, 2003
(Issue 2114, The Computer Generation)

We may be living in the Age of the Computer, but it's not an age that's evenly spread.

With nearly every public library with Internet terminals having a waiting list to get online, private-enterprise "cyber cafés" have been springing up all over the landscape the past few years.

Often furnished much like a trendy coffee shop (and often selling trendy coffees), with modern metallic tables and chic decor, cyber cafés make money by charging for Internet access.

From folks who are traveling and want to catch up on their e-mail to those on a tight budget wanting to get online without the investment of a regular Internet account, cyber cafés serve a broad spectrum of customers.

And cyber cafes can be found in an increasing number of locales. From high-end shopping malls (where many of the Wizards of the Coast chain of cyber cafés can be found) to local strip malls, from airport terminals to hotel lobbies, cyber cafés are a growing phenomenon.

Just not in Riverside, Calif.

Fear factor

In early March, the Riverside City Council voted 6-0 to deny a conditional use permit to a cyber café.

The police department had recommended the denial – citing criminal activity that they felt cyber cafés seem to attract.

The rest of the world might scratch their head over that. What kind of criminal activity would an Internet café cater to?

Well, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the police department cited the fact that they had been called to the café more than 20 times in the previous year. The owner of the café, however, pointed out that no arrests or charges ever arose from those visits – that the regular calls to the police were the work of a hostile neighbor.

Buttressing the owner's position was the fact that about a dozen customers of the café attended the Council meeting and spoke in support of the café.

To no avail, however. The council referred to alleged criminal activity at other cafés in other cities, saying that Internet cafés attract gang activity and gambling.

Reality check needed

One might reasonably ask if having gang members learning computer skills isn't a better alternative than having them hanging out on street corners terrorizing neighborhoods. And giving the proliferation of Indian casinos and legal card rooms in Southern California, is having folks wager a few bucks on a game of "Counterstrike" or "Quake II" really the worst problem facing Riverside?

Clearly, there is a demand for public Internet access, else these businesses would not invest the money into offering these services.

From the above listed users to the growing popularity of LAN parties among teens and college students (a LAN party is a social gathering in which multiple players face off against each other in various multiplayer games), the demand for cyber cafés is only going to increase.

Tech-savvy municipalities offer incentives to cyber cafés to encourage them to open in their communities. From tax breaks to waived fees, most cities are active in recruiting additional Internet access for their citizens.

The immediate future

There remain two legal cyber cafés in Riverside, but their conditional use permits strictly limit their hours and the number of terminals they can host.

And presumably the Riverside public libraries have Internet terminals as well.

Still, it's hardly a sign of civic health when the local officials' first reaction to a proposal to expand Internet access is to squash it.

And the fact that the police department sees the Internet as a haven for criminal activity, rather than – as one mother whose son frequented the café in question – a place where kids can be safe after school is also troubling.

It is likely that the Riverside civic leaders are simply ignorant of what they ban.

Hopefully, the city council members and senior police department administrators will go spend a few hours at the two legal cyber cafés in town. Spend some time browsing the Web, chatting over an instant messaging system or going head to head in The Sims.

Or perhaps it will take the University of California, Riverside computer science department to help them see the light.

Regardless, Riverside's expensive new advertising campaign to lure businesses to the Inland Empire is going to fall flat if businesses have to worry about an out-of-step city leadership that sees the Internet not as the future, but as a threat.