Sex in the city

Picture your 13-year-old surfing the Net for some information needed for a school project. He types in the word 'Asia' and then presses the search icon and amidst the relevant sites, he finds one titled 'Little nude Asian girls'. Curious, he opens it. What do you think the repercussions would be? The pornographic material on the screen could well shatter his childhood innocence forever.

No specific licence

While all internet cafes have to be registered under Company Law, there's no specific licence they need to have. They can set up shop just like any other company, says Dr. Harsha Cabraal, Attorney-at-Law.

But under chapter 25, sub-section 285 & 286 of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka and the 1995 amendment 286A to the Penal Code, access to child pornography and the distribution and viewing of obscene material of any kind, are strictly prohibited and punishable under the law.

No personnel, no raids

The Police seem unaware of such activities. Children and Women's Bureau ASP Sisil De Silva said that at present they don't have any personnel qualified in this area to conduct raids but are training two officers to look into issues such as paedophilia etc. Raiding internet cafes is not on their books as yet, he says.

Internet cafés unheard of in the past, have mushroomed at almost every street corner in towns across the island. They offer internet and email facilities at relatively cheap rates and are popular among the youth, especially those who do not have the luxury of a home computer. Most young people use these cafés to check mail, chat with online buddies or get some personal, office or research work done.

However, internet cafes are also used to access pornographic material. And café owners are in general, turning a blind eye to this illegal activity.

Once you have access to the internet, you have access to a vast sea of information, be it educational material, photographs or information about your favourite movie star. You name it; the 'World Wide Web' has the info. The danger is that pornographic sites too are freely accessible on the internet.

There is no age limit for entry to these cafes and no supervision. You are given a computer and there is plenty of privacy. At Rs. 60 per hour, the rates are quite affordable too.

When The Sunday Times visited several internet cafes in Colombo, we found many people viewing pornographic sites on the Net. Some were hidden in corners while others accessed them in plain view of others.
Every internet café we visited had many porn sites being visited frequently. What was even more shocking was that some cafés seemed to be promoting this access. One café on Galle Road had a direct access route, "Internet Sex Provider Shortcut" on their desktop while another had a few computers that had a window opened to a porn site.

Given that pornography is illegal in this country, what controls do these cafes have on customers? Little if any, it seems. Udaya Perera of Berty's Internet Café says that they do random checks to see if the users view porn. "Sometimes we do find that they have but if they do, it's their private thing," he said. Around 30 to 40 people come in every day to surf the Net, the majority of them adults.

The owner of the café, which had the "Internet Sex Provider" shortcut said he was not aware of it, and it could be a customer who had downloaded it. “We update our computers on a daily basis and if we come across such shortcuts, they are eliminated,” he said.

Barclays' at Majestic City has a sign next to each computer that says in big bold letters "Strictly no restricted sites please". So how far do users follow the rules? According F. M. Irfan, Showroom Manager, the staff go around every 15 minutes to check what the users are viewing. "People mostly come to check mail or chat online with their friends," he says. The café has blocked unnecessary sites and if they see customers viewing porn they ask them not to. "If they don't stop we ask them to leave. There are times when this has happened," he says.

ISP Lanka, another internet café says that during the holidays they have many teenagers coming in but it is mostly office workers who come in to surf the Net. They admitted that people do check porn but they try to prevent it as much as possible as there are some sites that can be filtered.

Regular café users say they mainly chat with friends online and check mail at internet cafes. They are also useful for doing research. "It's quite affordable," says Kishani Perera (21). Using it mainly to check mail and do research she however says that there have been times that she has seen people looking at porn sites.

Jayan De Silva is a frequent café user who admits that he has checked out porn sites at least once. "When you have shortcuts before you, you tend to get curious," he says. He uses the cafes solely to check his mail but "I wouldn't be surprised if there were people who came to check porn".

Unlike in the west, 'Cyber Nannies' (people who scan the Net for pornographic sites or material and block them out) are unheard of here. But, the impact of pornography should not be underestimated, for young people could grow up believing that checking porn sites is the accepted practice or worse yet, the 'in thing' to do.

Anything related to pornography is illegal and therefore, should not be encouraged or tolerated by the authorities and café owners. However impossible it may seem for owners to monitor what each and every user accesses, being constantly vigilant and not giving users overly private enclosures would make accessing restricted sites, just that much more difficult. Parents too need to exercise caution if children patronize internet cafes too often.

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