The Information Times sent reporters to investigate how Guangzhou’s Internet cafes are implementing new rules, in effect since July 1, that mandate ID checks on customers. Although they found that some Net cafes are sidestepping the law, the bigger news is the dramatic drop in business.1
The new rules mandate that Net cafes must implement systems by which customers’ ID cards are checked before they are allowed entry. Net cafes have adopted slightly different procedures, including automatic smart card swipe systems (some of which include deposit fees).
The point of this legislation is ostensibly to ensure that minors do not gain entry into Net cafes. Critics have complained that ID check, along with requirements that proprietors track customers’ online activities, infringes on personal privacy.
Feedback from cafe proprietors was mixed. Some of them grudgingly admitted that since they were already responsible for refusing service to minors, the new ID systems made that task much easier. On the other hand, cafe operators saw a dramatic fall off in business, with customer volume at 30% of normal levels. One cafe owner reported business at 5% of normal levels.
All of this suggests that minors had been constituting the majority of Net cafe customers. To the extent that the new rules have cut down on usage by minors, then in terms of the stated goal of the new law, implementation has been successful. This does not, however, take into account business conducted by unlicensed operators (see below).
With the significant loss of business, it is unsurprising that the reporters also found several non-compliant operators. Several methods for sidestepping the rules were identified:
1. The Emergency Excuse — customer will claim that he forgot his ID but that his need to get online is an urgent matter (once the customer enters, of course, no one ever bothers to check how long the customer is actually online). I’m not sure I see this so much as cleverly avoiding the rules as opposed to selective non-enforcement.
2. Two People, One Card — one person brings card, the other shows alternate ID. Again, this didn’t seem to be a significant problem either, since the reporter described a situation where a driver’s license was shown, which showed the cafe owner that the person was not a minor. Related to this is the “Hey Mister, can you buy me some beer?” approach, whereby a minor accompanies an adult into the cafe ostensibly as an observer only, the adult gets online, and then the minor takes over.
3. Lax Card Swipe Systems — automatic systems don’t work if operators never check whether the person and the card owner are the same. The reporters found that in some cafes, one could even bring in a card of a member of the opposite sex and still get online using a valid ID number.
4. Pass the Inspection — some cafe owners get by with as little enforcement as possible, ensuring only that they have a good chance to survive an unannounced government inspection. To this end, they keep signs in the window (e.g. “No minors”) and request that all customers present ID cards upon entrance. These proprietors are quite flexible, however, with customers that fail to bring ID, going so far as to allow them to borrow “backup” ID that can be used if an inspection occurs.
Feedback from customers and parents has also been mixed, but the results differ according to income and class. People with computers and Internet connections at home have no problem with the new rules, which generally do not effect them. Lower income individuals, including migrant workers, are hit much harder by the new rules. Some parents, believing that their children will continue going to Net cafes despite the new rules, expressed concern that the restrictions will drive them to “black cafes” that may be unsafe.
The reporters visited several “black” Net cafes and described them in detail, explaining how entire segments of the industry may just move underground to avoid police inspections. Some of the clever avoidance techniques used by these unlicensed proprietors include lack of signage, false signage (e.g. “Community Information Center” and “Computer Repair”), and combining a legitimate shop with an unlicensed shop.
The police have a choice: either go after unlicensed operators in an aggressive fashion or amend the current system to allow for additional flexibility. Otherwise customers will simply move from licensed to unlicensed Net cafes.