Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Internet Demand Spirals

Iraqis can’t wait to get online as era of web censorship comes to an end.
By Hisham Karim

All over Iraq, whether in central Baghdad or the smallest provincial town, internet cafes have blossomed since the fall of Saddam Hussein. And, to the relief of local web enthusiasts, they are completely uncensored.


In Baghdad alone, estimates put the number of internet cafes at 150, and no one has experienced anything like the restricted browsing of the old days.


Unsurprisingly, the cafes are packed with users from dawn to dusk.


Patrons range from middle-aged matrons emailing relatives in other Iraqi towns, businessmen seeking partners or suppliers in the region to lads electronically flirting with women around the globe.


Engineering student Ali Abdel Hussein, who’s after websites for engineers in one of the capital’s burgeoning cafes, thinks the web will help "raise the cultural level of the Iraqi people".


"It saves students a great deal of time and money in searching for information and study sources," he said. "It's an important step in development."


Unlike satellite dishes, internet access was never banned under the old regime. But it was restricted and available through just 60 or so government-controlled centres.


Users naturally assumed their browsing habits and e-mail were closely monitored.


Each internet cafe's server was programmed to block certain web addresses, and attempts to access sites disapproved of by the government – such as Iraqi opposition parties or even the Iraqi singer Kadhem al-Saher – raised a black screen with red letters telling the user he was not allowed to progress further.


But things could change as internet access providers are operating in a policy vacuum outside the purview of the State Company for Internet Services.


Cafe owners say the state company is refusing to offer any licenses for new venues.


Still, the owners – taking their chances – are counting on a total lack of government control and enforcement.


Some owners of private cafes say they have attempted to receive formal licensing, but received either confusing responses or none at all.


"The ministry of communications told me to talk to the state company, and the state company told me talk to the Americans," said one owner.


Another, who operates a cafe in the upmarket Baghdad neighbourhood of Mansour, describes a surreal encounter with the state internet service company.


His license application initially was refused because he didn't own the proper receiving equipment, and the state warehouse holding the official supply was picked clean by looters.


But when he offered to pay for his own receiver on the open market, the official threatened to confiscate the equipment in order to help restock the government warehouse.


Eventually, the official offered a deal on the equipment – if the owner bought it from a friend of the official.


In the end, the owner managed to open his café using privately acquired equipment and he’s not worried about the state internet services company ever becoming organised enough to catch up with him.


Several attempts by IWPR to obtain comment from the company were refused.


Meanwhile, with Baghdad's phone system still only partially functional, the cafes all operate off satellite receivers.


Foreign communications firms such as Hughes of the US and Russia's Soyuz have moved in quickly to establish operations, setting up powerful satellite dishes and selling access to the booming cafe market.


Owners’ start-up costs average under 4,500 US dollars for hardware, with a monthly subscription of 500 dollars.


That comes out to a lot more than the annual fee of 6 million Iraqi dinars (around 3,600 dollars) paid by the government-owned cafes. But the private owners get faster, better equipment and reliable maintenance.


At between 1,500 and 3,000 dinars (1-2 dollars) per hour, the cost of using private cafes is no more expensive than one run by the government, and customers are starting to notice a big difference between the two.


"The same thing that would take me two hours to accomplish in a government cafe takes only a half hour in the private one," said student Ahmed Harith.


Home internet usage is also expected to rocket in the new Iraq.


While home accounts were permitted under the old regime, they cost the full 6 million dinars – as though the applicant were going to open a public cafe.


Home internet services are now starting to become available for as little as the price of the cable and installation plus a subscription price of 50 dollars a month.


As a result, a nation once cut off from the world is now finding itself on a new threshold of discovery.


“The spread of internet cafes has made it easy to communicate with the outside world,” said cafe user Kamal Ali. “We were never able to do this in the past.”


Hisham Karim Alwan is an IWPR correspondent.