A major city may soon require Internet cafes to be licensed, keep a log of and videotape their customers, and curtail their business hours.
It may sound like Beijing, where a fire at an Internet cafe last summer was used as a pretext for the Communists to crack down on political activity. But it's actually New York, where local and state legislators are tripping over each other to look like heroes following a handful of violent incidents tenuously connected to the virtual venues.
In the aftermath of a handful of gang-related fights, one of which occurred near a Brooklyn establishment with the parent-panicking name "Cyber Sniper Cafe," state Senator Martin Golden proposed regulations for Internet cafes. City Council Member Eric Gioia, a Queens Democrat, and Speaker Gifford Miller are also piling on.
No one from the council could tell me how many Internet cafes there are in New York City; the cafes don't need a special license from the city yet, there's no citywide or national trade association, and the yellow pages don't offer a comprehensive listing. But bills have been introduced and a hearing is set for Thursday.
Before Golden, Miller, Gioia & Co. make any sudden moves, the politicians might make sure they have a firm grasp of the issue. Listening to the crotchety-sounding Mr. Golden, who last week derided the "Internet craze" that "continues to grow," it's hard to believe that they do.
In a down economy, Internet cafes seem to be one of the only types of business proliferating in the outer boroughs. While stand-alone cafes have had little success in Manhattan, where fast computers and faster Internet access can be found in most apartments and offices, Brooklyn and Queens seem to be home to an Internet cafe boom.
The shops, with bays of Internet-enabled computers rented out for a few bucks an hour, tend to be patronized by teens playing video games and chatting via computer well into the night.
"Internet cafes can provide a valuable service to a neighborhood, but in some cases they become an attractive nuisance, acting like a magnet to attract graffiti, teen violence, and truancy," Mr. Gioia said last week.
It's hard to see how places where teens come inside and sit at computers for hours can be all that evil. Are gang beatings absent from the parts of Brooklyn and Queens without Internet cafes? Isn't it better to have these children off the street and indoors, where there is at least a modicum of supervision making it harder to buy drugs, get in fights, and menace pedestrians?
The complaint that some children may be cutting class to play computer games in these cafes may be a valid one. But it seems the city could do more to work with the cafe owners to reach a voluntary agreement not to allow minors inside during school hours before resorting to regulation.
The regulations being proposed threaten to deny valuable services to the communities that need them most. Mr. Golden's proposal calls for fining $1,000 and then shutting down cafes where disorderly conduct occurs.
The prospect that a couple of teens getting into a fight could close down one's business may well be enough to keep entrepreneurs from opening up cafes in poorer neighborhoods, where the fewest families have their own computers.
Another problem is how to clamp a static regulation onto the dynamic Internet cafe market. Mr. Gioia's bill defines an Internet cafe as: "any commercial establishment that provides access to computers to the public through which said public may connect with the Internet or World Wide Web."
The trend in the Internet cafe business, however, is away from freestanding cafes to cafes embedded in existing businesses.
One franchise, easyInternetcafe -- the flagship Times Square branch of which has hemorrhaged money as a stand-alone business -- is expanding by opening outlets in restaurants such as Ranch 1, near Rockefeller Plaza, and 101 City Food Cafe, near Grand Central. It hopes to open 50 more locations in the New York metro area this year, in venues such as fast-food chains and grocery stores. Might these establishments find themselves touched by new Internet cafe laws?
Until the council and the state Legislature attain a basic understanding of the Internet cafe business, they have no place regulating it.
In the meantime, the owners of Internet cafes ought to wake up to the fact that they are not being represented in the current debate and form a trade association.
It's a sad day for an industry when the politicians notice it -- that's the day the industry needs to pay the hidden tax of learning to lobby. It's the homage innovation pays to vice, at least here in Gotham.
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