Science & Technology

Net Nannies

You're on caf? camera.


If you walk into an Internet café in Garden Grove, California, you should smile. In January the state's 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a city ordinance requiring Net café owners to install video surveillance systems. The ordinance, wrote Justice David Sills in an unusually vitriolic dissent, "literally forces a 'Big Brother' style telescreen to look over one's shoulder while [one is] accessing the Internet."

The law -- which also controls hours of operation, mandates that the businesses hire security guards, and stipulates hours during which minors may not be admitted -- was prompted by a series of violent incidents "in or around" city Internet cafés. Cybercafé owners challenged the rules, which they say invade privacy and unduly burden free speech. The court agreed on the second point only, striking down a requirement that new Net cafés obtain a permit before opening.

Ronald Talmo, the Western State University law professor who argued the café owners' case, maintains that the remaining regulations are not narrowly tailored to meet the city's safety concerns. He also worries that the requirements may chill speech. The majority's reasoning, he says, amounts to: "We're all on tape so much already. What's the big deal?"

Lead plaintiff Diane Vo, who owns the Vietnam Internet Center, wonders how any of the new rules would have prevented the incident that sparked them: the killing of a college student who had just left a café. As Sills' dissent observes, only three of the city's 23 cybercafés have experienced the "gang-related violence" that provided the rationale for the law. Talmo suspects that council members are simply worried about any place where young Asian men tend to congregate.

Vo and Talmo are still contemplating whether to bring their case to the California Supreme Court. One concern is that continued opposition may not be pragmatic: Vo says police have begun entering her business to "card" customers in their 30s and notes that after she became licensed as a security guard to comply with that provision of the new regulations, the city council amended it to prohibit owners from serving as their own guards. Vo, who says she "put all my savings into this business to try to give the Vietnamese community access to the Internet," says she probably will have to close up shop if the regulations stand.