The photo and caption (right) illustrate the “Lan House Revolution” taking place right now in Brazil. Across the country, the majority of Brazilians accessing the Internet today do so through Local Area Networks (LAN) spanning all cities and communities. The concept of the LAN arrived in Brazil in 1998 but it had been previously observed only in the rich Brazilian neighborhoods. Now it has become a phenomenon especially in poorer and smaller communities, where computers and broadband connection are beyond the reach of the population. According to Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Center for Technology and Society at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) School of Law in Rio de Janeiro, “lan houses are places of intense sociability, and are occupying an important place in the life of the favelas”. His paper LAN Houses: A new wave of digital inclusion in Brazil was presented at the recent Harvard University Communication and Human Development Conference.
There are over 90 thousand lan houses nowadays in Brazil, which account for 50% of the Internet access in the country. Research published in 2008 by the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br) shows that in Brazil 48% of all users access the Internet from commercial premises like lan houses. When it comes to people from the poorest classes D and E, this number jumps to 79% – a 60% increase from the 48.08% in 2006. Brazil’s government and Brazilian researchers break down socio-economic groups into five categories according to the householder’s education level and the ownership of a series of domestic items, A through E, with A constituting the richest and E the poorest class.
Another poll, conducted by TV Cultura earlier this year in 27 lan houses throughout the city of Sao Paulo and drawing from 376 interviews with users and owners, revealed a growing presence of users from classes C and D and indicated that for 17% of the users, the lan houses are their only way to access the Internet, the same proportion of interviewees also have access at home (usually people who need to access the Internet when they are out), 15% at work and 12% at school. Playing video games is the main activity at lan houses for 42% of respondents, but an equal proportion access websites, culture, news and entertainment. Social networks, especially Orkut, and online chat are also very popular. In addition, the lan houses are also used for various research, school work and job searches.
Has the digital inclusion promoted by the lan houses across the country affected human development in Brazil?
Jeimy Remir, who has interviewed lan house owners and users, says that they improve lives – both of owners and users – and have changed the face of the country, especially in peripheral areas of big cities:
“As a fruit of creativity and entrepreneurship, starting lan houses has changed the lives of their owners. Usually attached to their own houses, the lan houses come in stylized environments, often set up in their home garages with different lighting and decor. Another feature of the lan houses is to serve as meeting points for young people, looking to make friends, interact and flirt. With the communication tools currently available, such as instant messaging, orkut and chat, the use of space for similar purposes has increased and confirmed such environments as a reflection of society. For this reason, the lan houses assert both their power to bring digital inclusion by providing access to the Internet for people with low-incomes and their unique characteristics: they provide a source of income for those who manage them and meeting points for youngsters”.
However, despite promoting social inclusion, the lan houses are victims of prejudice. A piece of news on a major Internet website that recently drew attention was about the police being called by the owner of a lan house to arrest a customer who had brought along pornographic pictures of children to make them available online. According to users, the way the media treated the news led to the impression that lan houses are paedophile meeting points. Rodrigo Lara Mesquita commented in forums and blog posts:
“The headline of the piece of news circulating on the Internet, and that almost certainly will be in the newspapers, is Alleged paedophile arrested in lan house with pictures of children, as you can see in this link from Terra and from the search on the topic on Google News. It is the lan house that is made infamous, shown in a bad light. Like a den of mismanagement and of corruption for teenagers.
This is not the real picture. The lan houses suffer from the same dangers faced by any other sector of the economy. Lan houses, cyber cafes, telecentres and whatever, have a fundamental role to play in the process of inclusion in the knowledge infrastructure, from digital inclusion to innovation, as is demonstrated by this statistical presentation of the Brazilian market [of lan houses]“.
André Rubens realized that this prejudice is widespread throughout the country in a meeting he attended last December with other owners and presidents of lan house associations. He said it was possible to see that “people seem to think that lan houses are something that damages the health and well being of the individual.” He explains how this situation used to be worse, when this new, then unknown, type of business saw a rapid and significant increase:
“It had all become a huge time bomb, until new data showing that we are responsible for digital inclusion in the country began to appear, as well as saying that video games are INDEED GOOD for the formation of children and adolescents INCLUDING those considered violent, and then those people who had attacked us faced a counter-attack and nowadays they respect us! Our fight continues, by arguing with the authorities, hitting stupid comments and making new projects we will win sympathy from society and will be recognized for our great importance to social and digital inclusion”.
That meeting, which aimed to understand and help solve the main problems faced by lan houses in Brazil, had the support of the Mozilla project, which provided a wiki to document the discussion and motivate the debate to take place in a collaborative way, open to everyone:
“Several issues were addressed, such as the issue of [business] informality, proposed regulations for the sector, the main technical problems encountered, suggestions for customization of Firefox and restrictions on the use of games. The first phase of the Lan House project consisted exactly of identifying the problems faced and mapping options for ways to help”.
In an interview on Ceila Santos’ blog, the director of ABCID (Brazilian Association of Digital Inclusion Centres) Rafael Maurício da Costa explains how new, fierce regulations may cause many lan houses to close down:
“Lan houses have been strongly associated with truancy. And it has been inferred that to combat truancy, it would be enough to close lan houses down. As a result, a series of laws created all over the country makes it incredibily difficult to have a formal business model. What happens is that there is a dramatically increasing demand for access to technology, and thus more supply is offered [through lan houses], and as there is no support for legal operation, the majority of them operate in an informal way. The interesting thing is that it is precisely in this informality that all the bad practices that legislation seeks to combat breed. As an unfortunate consequence there is a growing number of people who would like to formalize [their business] but find many “barrier clauses” to legal operation”.
There are already quite tight regulations for lan houses, and these differ according to which state they inhabit. In Sao Paulo, for instance, every lan house must keep a record of users’ names and addresses. In Paraná, a bill proposes that every user accessing a computer from a lan house is filmed and that management keeps all recordings for two years. In the state of Amazonas, underage users must provide a written authorization from their parents to access a computer from lan houses. A draft bill considers requesting ID for every user. Luiz Rodrigo Silva de Souza, a 14 year old blogger who sometimes uses lan houses in the Amazonas capital Manaus, comments on regulations and how they do not seem to work – maybe because they are far from reality.
This must be the tenth law that tries to regulate lan houses. By regulation I mean to prohibit permitting. They have tried to ban lan houses in a 1 km radius of schools, to forbid children from using computers for more than three hours and running competitions with prize money, did they work?
Ideally, children should be in school, not at the lan house, but creating a law to get them out of there is not enough, if it was, why not also create a law banning the economic crisis, cigarettes and miguxês? It is clear that measures like these will not save children from exploitation and child prostitution, the most they will achieve is to bankrupt lan houses. Keeping a legalized lan house in Manaus is not feasible due to the cost of a broadband connection here, and these laws want to hold them accountable for a problem whose main culprits are authorities and society itself.
As of now, there are more than 90,000 lan houses in Brazil, whereas the country has 2,000 movie theatres and 2,600 bookstores. Can they be a place for more than just playing games or updating orkut, or even to use citizenship and e-government services? Pedagogue Rita Guarezi says that lan houses already play a key role in distance learning:
“Spanning Brazil, lan houses have gained even more relevance in the poorest regions, in the north and northeast [areas], where the highest rates of truancy in the country are registered. Within this reality of continuous growth of Internet users and lan houses, distance learning over the Internet (e-learning) has been established as a tool to help in the fight against truancy among young people, offering the widest variety of options for those who want to supplement their studies, recycle and improve knowledge. For all these reasons, we can view lan houses as a space for studying too. We believe that distance learning over the Internet in Brazil is closely linked to the future of lan houses and their new nuances. And the prospects are extremely promising”.
And they can also be a space for culture. The writer Simone Campos has a project: to make best use of the lan houses popularity to turn Brazil into a country of readers. One of her future projects is interactive fiction, using the language of games, more familiar to new generations than the one of books, to make literature:
“The lan house is the new rendez-vous. I just have to use it. I want to plant a virus that transforms lan houses into libraries”.
Gil Giardelli sees the ferment of a revolution. What will it be like?
“In the outskirts of megalopolis, the owl sessions in the lan house are cool – With R$ 6.00 (US$ 2) you spend the night and have a nice morning coffee there!
The guys socialize, the parents have peace of mind, educators get worried and therapists will certainly have more patients in the near future!
50% of people in Brazil get online from lan houses! How will this revolution be? Savvy guys? Lonely guys? Guys with a differentiated education system? The economy and the collective education systems raised to the third power? A new humanity?”
Thanks to Paula Góes for letting us reproduce this item.