When 16 newspapers in Tehran were shut down last week, Iranian mullahs and housewives lined up at cybercafes for the news.
In South Korea, young people flock to their corner "PC bangs" to light up the screens with "Starcraft."
In the remotest and poorest parts of China, lovelorn villagers are discovering romance online.
From Tehran to Tasmania, cybercafes are becoming inexpensive and indispensible gathering places of whole societies. Five years ago, there were an estimated 80 cafes, mostly in the US and Europe. Today, in South Korea alone, there are about 15,000.
In the US, many Americans go online from home or work, but when they're abroad they join Dutch backpackers and British businessmen queuing up to check their e-mail at Kalia Cafe in Tonga.
The following vignettes from five cafes, including a 550-seater in London and a nook in Chengdu, China, offer a window on the burgeoning cafe phenomenon.
A peacekeeper cafe in Kosovo
It's 5:30 a.m. Never has Pristina, Kosovo's capital, seemed as peaceful as now. Mother Teresa Street, usually choked with cars, is empty. The shops are dark, the sidewalk cafes have retreated indoors. The air is still.
At the easyNet Caf, Andy Sullivan of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is hunched over a keyboard, pecking out a two-fingered message to his parents in Belfast. The British peacekeeper had worked the night shift. Now it's morning.
"We had a busy night," he says, looking weary. "By this time, 5 or 5:30, it's very quiet. We have half an hour to stop in and check our mail. This is my first break all night."
The easyNet Caf never sleeps. It's like Store 24, open all day, all night, all year round. When the electricity goes off, as it often does in Kosovo, the manager charges out the door and expertly cranks up the generator. There's hardly a pause.
EasyNet offers few frills. It's a square room with fluorescent lights, peach-colored walls, and old green carpeting. Fifteen computers are arranged with all the imaginative geometry of a fifth-grade classroom. To call easyNet a cafe is a stretch. There's a glass-fronted cooler in front that holds beverages and recently, a coin-fed coffee machine was installed. That's all. Yet easyNet is almost always crowded. It's popular among the ex-patriots who swarm Pristina - aid workers, journalists, backpackers, and entrepreneurs.
For many the Internet is the only way to stay in touch. There's no postal service in Kosovo, and calls abroad are expensive - if you can get a line.
Among the UN police, easyNet functions like the all-night doughnut shop. They stride in at all hours, with their flak jackets, their robin-egg blue berets, their radios squawking: "Alpha -One-Two. Alpha-One-Two. This is Bravo-Four. Do you read me?"
Half the customers are locals. Schoolchildren descend like sparrows in late morning, settling two or three at a computer. But most locals are young people in their teens or twenties. Some come to look up the Web sites of American colleges. Most plug into chat rooms. The Internet is where the Kosovar diaspora meets.
The owner, Luan Oruqi, opened easyNet in January. Like many Albanian men, Mr. Oruqi, spent years abroad, in his case England and Italy. "I wanted to start something fashionable," he says. Others had the same idea. Four Internet cafes have opened in Pristina, and more are on the way.
But Oruqi's is the most popular. An hour costs six German marks ($3) until midnight, when the price falls to $1.50. The crowd thins out after 3 a.m. After that it's mostly police straggling in. When dawn breaks the place begins to fill again.
- Richard Mertens,Pristina, Yugoslavia
A cyber match made in China
Gong Shu is in love. Her eyes light up when she talks about He Xiao. "He's very kind and patient, and he smiles a lot," says the college student during a break at her favorite cybercafe, "In four days he will fly from Shanghai to visit me, but it feels like it will take four years! I'm very excited to finally meet him."
Although Gong Shu and He Xiao haven't met face to face, they've spent the last month getting to know each other through an online chat room, a common destination for visitors to cybercafes in Chengdu, capital of China's Sichuan province.
Gong Shu is among the 8.9 million Chinese using the Internet on a regular basis, up from a mere 620,000 people in 1997. Much of this growth is coming from China's densely populated and underdeveloped interior, in cities that have long been isolated from the rest of China.
"A year ago there were two cybercafes in this neighborhood," says Wang Xue Song, the manager of a cybercafe in Chengdu. "Now there are more than 30 - Chengdu is finally opening up to the rest of the world."
Charging customers a mere 3 yuan (US$.40) per hour to use one of the 10 computers crammed into an unlit 8- by 6-foot room, Wang's business is thriving. Inside the stuffy room, all the terminals are occupied. "They're all students," says Wang, lifting back the thick red drape covering the entrance, "they're the only people that have enough free time and the skills to use the Internet."
According to a recent government survey, 84 percent of Internet users in China are under the age of 35. And what is luring the Chinese youth in droves to the cybercafes? "Most of them come here to chat," says Wang.
In a country where traditional values and strict school rules make getting to know members of the opposite sex a complicated process, online chat rooms offer a safe haven for students to gradually get to know each other.
"I am a single man and I have nowhere to play," says Sai Xing Hao, a student in Chengdu, "I don't like to go out with other students and talk about trivial things, so I come here to chat with others online who share my interests."
Despite easy access to foreign-owned Chinese language sites like Yahoo!, the government-owned Chat.163.com is the country's most popular online chat room, boasting more than 40,000 hits per day.
For a government that just recently banned discussion of "state secrets" on the Internet in attempts to tighten its grip on a communication medium that is increasingly out of control, the site's popularity is a relief, as the content of online discussions can be easily monitored. But if Wang Xue Song's customers are any indication, Beijing has little to worry about.
"Most students who chat online aren't interested in talking about politics," says Wang, "they just want to make new friends with other Chinese and with people from all over the world; it's really a wonderful thing."
- Robert Schmitz, Chengdu, China
London boasts biggest cafe
It's mid-afternoon at the "easyEverything" cafe in London's Kensington High Street, and about 200 of its 550 terminals are occupied, mostly by surfers ranging from teenagers to under-30's.
Robert, selling vouchers to the customers, says "it's a quiet afternoon just now but it'll get busier around 5 o'clock, when users start leaving shops and offices."
He forecasts: "By 10 p.m. we'll be doing a roaring trade. Customers will be waiting in line, and it'll be the same thing at our four other cafes in London."
The London easyEverything establishments, with their ranks of terminals (2,500 in all), bare-board floors, and counters for coffee, soft drinks and snacks, are part of a star burst of cybercafes in the British capital.
Their owner, Stelios Haji-Iannou, multimillionaire proprietor of the successful easyJet discount airline, says he is planning to open branches in Edinburgh, Dublin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Rome and Madrid. By 2002, Mr. Iannou plans to have 60 stores operating in Britain and Europe. He says he is looking for a site in New York. All will stay open round-the-clock. "Our secret is the price," says Iannou. "We are by far the easiest and cheapest way to get on-line."
His cafes operate a system of flexible pricing, depending on how busy each establishment is at any given time. At slack periods surfers can pay as little as one pound ($1.60) for two hours. When numbers of surfers build up the same sum may buy only 30 minutes on-line.
In the Kensington cafe Richard Strong, from South Dakota, says he is "mainly interested in sending e-mails to friends back home." Two terminals down, Francoise du Boeuf, from Nice, France, is browsing the Net for "a cheap train fare to get me to Prague."
Iannou claims around 5,000 customers log-on in each London cybercafe each day, and he's puzzled that "research shows that 40 percent of them have the Internet at home."
"We are watching some kind of socio-economic phenomenon at work," he notes. "Some arrive around midnight and stay till well after dawn."
Australian software salesman Clive Eaton, who was surfing the Net in search of rap music, explained that much of the appeal of cybercafes was that "they're good places to meet new people", adding: "Anyway, if you choose the right time, it costs you peanuts to stay on-line, whereas a movie would be much more expensive."
The easyEverything chain may be London's most ambitious Internet operation, but there are hundreds of other establishments, and their popularity shows no sign of dipping.
It is five years since Eva Pascoe opened London's first Internet cafe. "We named it Cyberia, and the idea was to create a computer training centre for women," she recalls. "But our first customers were all men, so we put in a coffee bar. Pretty soon the gender balance began to correct itself, and now there are more female users than men."
Ms Pascoe predicts that in the next two years another 500 cybercafes will open in London.
Some will be modest in size and, like the "e-bar" in London's Parson's Green, geared heavily to social activity.
E-bar proprietor James Hogbin dismisses the easyEverything establishments as "the McDonald's of the cafe world."
"In the evening, when it's for members only, we offer something more intimate," he says. "During the day mothers can come here for training sessions, and leave their children at a nearby crche."
The e-bar makes easyEverything cafes seem like serious bargains. An hour on-line costs 4 pounds 80 pence (close to eight dollars), but for that you get soft lights, carpets, comfortable chairs, and the company of Mr Hogbin's pet spaniel Toby.
- Alexander MacLeod, London
In Iran, another media opens
The Internet is exploding across Iran, providing a path to the outside world that is rarely available at local newstands or state-run television.
But the Internet can also caught up in the political tug-of-war between hard-line clerics and outward-looking reformists. Last week, for example, every pro-reform newspaper was shut down for the first time.
"It's crazy!" says one young French student, a young women draped in an Islamic head scarf sitting at an Internet cafe in downtown Tehran. "They took those newspapers off the streets, but we can still get all the news we want from the Internet."
A worker at the cafe, who asked not to be named because of the tense political climate, says his cafe has been open for the last 1 1/2 years, but only this week put a sign out on the street.
"There have been periods when they burned cinemas, for the films they showed," he says. "The Internet is good for the country, but we must be careful."
There are some 15 Internet cafes in Tehran. Half the clientele are using the Net for e-mail access. Students use it for research, those with family abroad keep in touch with e-mail, and businessmen watch the markets. During a visit, one shoe designer was connected to the Tom Welsh in New York web site, searching for design ideas for his own shop.
The atmosphere is quiet and grand with the latest business furniture. Coffee and tea are served, and there are two charges: $3 per hour for normal service, or $5 per hour if you require steady staff help.
"Most of our clients are quite highly educated," the cafe worker says. "But sometimes we have bazaaris [old-style business men] who have never seen a computer, and want us to do everything."
Pornography is strictly illegal, in a country where women must completely cover their hair and wear shapeless dark overgarments. Some Internet service providers block all the porn sites they can find, any address that has "il" - for Israel - and often use lists of their clients visits to track such sites down.
Cafes, too, ask clients not to view pornography or other sites that would bring official opprobrium. No laws have yet been passed or rules made regarding Internet use or "acceptable" sites, but cafes filter out as many as they know about, and everyone knows there are red lines.
One Internet cafe, in fact, asks its first-time customers to fill out a page with personal details, and then sign beneath the promise: "I will respect the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Scott PetersonTehran, Iran
Cafe surfing fees
What a variety of Internet cafes charge (in US dollars) for one hour online.
Chengdu, China $0.40
London, England .80 -$8.00
Tehran, Iran $3.00
Seoul, Korea $2.00
Pristina, Kosovo $3.00
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society