The Weird, Sketchy History of Internet Cafes

By Bryan Lufkin on at

Internet cafes started out as coffee shops where you could check email. But over the years, people turned them into dens for sharing pirated music, hotspots for video game addiction, and even temporary housing.

How Internet Cafes Were Born

In the February 17, 1993 edition of the Washington Post, writer John Boudreau filed a story from San Francisco headlined “A Cuppa and a Computer: Coffeehouse Cyberpunks Seek Love and the Meaning of Life”.

Boudreau described how the bohemian cafes that birthed San Francisco’s beatnik scene had morphed into 20 nondescript coffee houses full of low tables with inlaid keyboards, where computers connected visitors to other coffee houses scattered in San Francisco and the nearby city of Berkeley. These places were part of a new communications network called SF Net, which provided an online (and real life) forum that connected everyone from “twenty-something slackers” to “physicists”, who rocked screen names like Warlock Scar and Ultra Crab. It was an era when the internet was still being described as an “electronic bulletin board”.

What did people do on SF Net? They flirted, they waxed existential, posted short stories, and role-played fake personas (the Post story mentions one regular who appeared as a 14th-century Pope).

SF Net was founded a year-and-a-half earlier, in 1991, by a 35-year-old San Franciscan named Wayne Gregori. At that time, the network serviced 900 regulars in the Bay Area, half of which were home subscribers, and half that were logged on at coffee houses. They also provided plastic keyboard covers to shield keys from spilled drinks.

“This is the best example of cyberspace,” Gregori told the Post. “There’s something so spiritual about getting to know someone only through words. It’s like a living novel, a drama that plays itself out 24 hours a day. You can really get lost in this thing.”

Three years later, in 1994, a UK-based designer named Ivan Pope refined the internet cafe concept. He proposed a cafe that centered on internet access (that allowed people to browse art), as opposed to regular coffee shops that offered it as just an extra amenity. It was part of a commission for an art event called “Towards the Aesthetics of the Future” at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London.

Soon after — in the same era as dial-up connections and flying toaster screensavers — the world’s first internet cafe opened, situated in London. Called Cyberia, its goal was to give everyday folks access to a desktop computer and the World Wide Web for a small hourly fee. Business boomed, and the model attracted the attention of rich CEOs.

Five years later, in 1999, then-boss of easyJet Stelios Haji-Ioannou launched the first chain of internet cafes in the UK, and the world. It was called easyEverything: The Internet Shop. The flagship store, found across the street from London Victoria Station, was 10,000 square feet and packed in 400 screens. Stelios charged for £1 per hour of internet access.

The idea was eventually exported to New York’s Times Square in 2000, but by then, the idea of going someplace to simply get online was already getting outdated. The internet was something you could access from home; it was evolving. And internet cafes got a whole lot weirder.

The Weird, Sketchy History of Internet CafesThe easyEverything internet cafe in Times Square was the Guinness-certified world’s largest, with 800 PC terminals. It’s seen here on November 28, 2000. Photo by Chris Hondros/Newsmakers via Getty

A Place for Pirates

Flannel-wearing '90s hipsters got internet cafes off the ground, but internet pirates wanting free movies and music took the establishment to a whole new level. At the turn of the millennium (around the same time Napster became popular) sharing music online did, too. And people in pursuit of illicit MP3s started filling internet cafes again.

In the early 2000s, easyJet’s internet cafe chain held a promotion that allowed customers to copy a CD’s worth of music from the internet for a measly £5. Surprise, surprise, record labels were none too pleased: Sony Music, Universal Music, and EMI launched an 18-month legal battle, and emerged victorious. In January 2003, easyJet was found guilty of copyright infringement.

Mexico also saw a spate of piracy in its internet cafes. As far back as 2000, CDs of pirated software were sold on the streets (“Everybody comes here,” one vendor told Wired. “We get little kids buying Dragon Ball and old ladies buying Encarta 2000.”) This led to police raiding internet cafes, burning CDs, and checking software on all computers and demanding to see original receipts of any Microsoft programs on the machines.

Pirating was harder to track a decade or more ago, especially at internet cafes in developing nations: In 2006, a third of Mexicans used internet cafes to get on the internet, and with several people using the same computer every day, being able to bust the actual pirate was not easy.

But things were different in Australia. In 2008, a massive raid of a Sydney internet cafe by the Australian Federal Police left the establishment with an $82,000 fine, 40 charges of copyright infringement, court costs, and forfeit of 60 computer terminals and three servers. Those 60 terminals had contained a staggering 8 terabytes of stolen music, movies, and TV. (For some context, the Hubble Space Telescope collect 45 terabytes of galactic photos in 20 years.) The company pleaded guilty to all charges.

Nowadays, pirating penalties are much stiffer. In Australia, there’s a set of laws in place that warn internet cafes that individuals caught pirating over the establishment’s network can face fines of over $60,000.

You may think that piracy scandals would’ve been the nail of the internet cafe coffin. Far from it, actually. Because gradually, the purpose of internet cafes evolved from simply checking email or hopping online. Today internet cafes have evolved again, becoming cultural institutions in several countries.

The Rise of the Game Den

Demand for internet connectivity began to rise globally, but most people didn’t have internet access at home. This began driving the demand for internet cafes from west to east. In 2011, there were over 350,000 internet cafes across Asia. In countries like China and South Korea, a specific, new clientele took internet cafe revenue to those astronomical heights: gamers.

In 2011, gaming in Asian internet cafes generated $19 billion in revenue, according to a study from marketing firm Pearl Research that looked at five east- and south Asian countries. It’s the same study that found that customers in Korea headed to internet cafes exclusively to play massively multiplayer online games, despite the fact that 82 per cent of Korean households in 2011 owned a PC.

How’d the craze kick off? Nearly two decades ago, Blizzard Entertainment released Starcraft, a military scifi strategy game, and it took Korea by storm. Suddenly, thousands of people wanted access to PCs optimised for playing games. The market answered with internet cafes built for just for gaming — or “PC bangs”, as they’re known in Korea. Even if patrons owned computers at home, the ones at PC bangs are more souped-up and better equipped for online gaming.

PC bangs are still in full force today, with over 22,000 reported in 2007. Patrons spend around 50 pence per hour for the all-you-can-play, high-speed bandwidth, powerful hardware, and snacks for purchase. According to PBS, gaming addicition has grown into a problem, with work and school falling by the wayside as gamers spend all their time and money at PC bangs. In 2011, Korea implemented a controversial curfew that meant customers under 16 were not allowed in internet cafes from midnight to 6 a.m.

Internet cafes took off elsewhere in East Asia, too. In China, they saw explosive growth in popularity in the ‘90s and early 2000s for the same reason they did in Korea: Young people flocked to play online games. Then, in 2002, a group of teen boys burned down an internet cafe in Beijing and tragically killed 24. Since that time, the government began regulating these establishments heavily.

The Weird, Sketchy History of Internet CafesPlayaers zone out in front of video games on June 11, 2005 in Wuhan, China. At that time, there were 2,000 internet cafes in Wuhan alone, and cost pennies to play overnight. Credit: Cancan Chu/Getty Images

Meanwhile, across the pond in Japan, internet cafes are a much more private experience. You can rent out a private cubicle-booth with your own computer, comfy chair, and have access to all-you-can-drink soft drinks, snacks, a vast manga library, and tons of other amenities. Unfortunately, they’re so comfortable and convenient, that over the last decade, some customers have settled in — and don’t want to leave.

Bloomberg reported that in 2007, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said that 60,900 people spent a night in an internet cafe, and that 5,400 were living in them full time. To be clear, staying overnight in a Japanese internet cafe is actually something you can do: many cafes offer a quiet sleeping area, and some include small beds inside the booth with your computer. But these aren’t overnight guests; they’re part of a relatively new group called “net cafe refugees”.

These so-called “refugees” can spend around $15 a night for a place to sleep that’s cheaper than a hotel or monthly rent for a flat. Net cafes have turned into temporary housing for cash-strapped singles (or for couples, who can rent a two-person booth).

Internet cafes seem to be spots for all sorts of bizarre news: Earlier this year, one man died in a Taiwanese internet cafe after gaming for three days straight. Also this year, a 26-year-old woman in China gave birth while in an internet cafe toilet cubicle.

And yet, despite the piles of gaming revenue and the cheap housing, internet cafes are on the decline in Asia. Over the last six years, increased government regulation in China, at least, has seen a whopping 130,000 internet cafes shut down. The reason? Officials claim that these places are corrupting users 18 and under.

Still, there’s another reason internet cafes are shuttering: mobile phones.

But They’re Not Dead Yet

Silicon Valley companies like Microsoft and Google and Apple are clamouring to get “the next billion” online. By that, they mean the people who live in developing nations where internet access is spotty at best. Previously, internet cafes were the solution. But now, that’s changing.

In Nigeria, for example, the number of active mobile web subscriptions tripled from around 30 million in March 2013 to 90 million in February 2015. With all those people accessing the internet on web-connected phones, the need for internet cafes in emerging markets started to dwindle.

As a result, internet cafes are shuttering across the world. Quartz reports that the number of internet cafes has dropped in Thailand, India, Rwanda, and even in wealthier countries like China and Korea.

But considering internet cafes’ complicated past, it makes sense that their future could be complicated too.

The Weird, Sketchy History of Internet CafesDespite more people owning web-connected mobile phones globally, internet cafes still get developing nations online—like this one in Jakarta, seen here in 2015. Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

Earlier this year, police reported that in Colorado, a new wave of internet cafes started popping up in order to skirt local gambling laws. Five have been shut down since April, but two have since reopened. Some of them have unmarked store fronts, or advertise “certified skill games”. Colorado law prohibits slot machines and other forms of gambling that aren’t “games of skill” like poker.

This new wave of internet cafes have a tawdry reputation that might be the only way future internet users will know them. Today’s online gambling rooms are far cry from the Bay Area cappuccino spots filled with Nirvana-era cyberpunks posting to electronic bulletin boards, musing about infinity.

That said, internet cafes are also being used for less depressing purposes. Last month, NPR reported on a Pakistani lawyer whose side enterprise is opening pop-up internet cafes for Middle Eastern refugees all over Europe. Along borders and high-traffic routes throughout Europe, he’s set up basic cafes where people can practise English, order hot meals, buy phone cards or communicate with loved ones on Skype.

As the internet changes, so does the way we use it. Internet cafes may never completely die. Even in the face of cheap mobile phones and free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, people could still use buildings dedicated for internet use for a variety of purposes, from sketchy and shady, to something that is actually humanitarian.

Top image: Cancan Chu/Getty Images

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