It's dinnertime and your teenage daughter doesn't respond to your calls. Then it strikes you: you've just bought her a brand new personal computer with all the latest features and given her an exclusive Internet account. So you assume she's safe and sound in her room, surfing the net, widening her knowledge. Maybe not.
One of the defining characteristics of the Internet is that you never know when it will startle you. Virtually every crime is possible here. There is paedophile racketeering, stalking, high security systems hacking, and child pornography. The net can be a dangerous place for a growing mind to experiment. There was the 20-year-old Israeli who hacked into the sophisticated Pentagon system and the 16-year-old Indian boy who made a porn site with pictures of classmates who'd taunted him. The net may not turn children into criminals, but it may well take them deeper into a seamy world than they ever need to go. Even searching for Britney Spears pictures can lead to a world your child has never imagined.
One phenomenon of particular concern in Kathmandu is chatting, and it isn't restricted to children. In corporate offices that use leased lines, there is almost always someone chatting. Eavesdrop on any teenage conversation and the words "this guy/girl I met on the net" are sure to pop up. It's fun: the chatter can assume any identity. "I go to general chat rooms because I don't have to go through the pain of meeting the person in real life," says 18-year-old Mamta. Research on Internet use and especially chatting in the US shows that most chatters are male-and that female names get all the attention. No in-depth study has been carried in Nepal, but an overwhelming number of chatters we found turned out to be female. "My parents would rather have me at home, using the net rather than going out to a disco. I don't really mind," says 17-year-old Ameena. Parents and children alike see the Internet as a "safe place" for young people to socialise.
And it can be, but you must know that when you chat, your system is open to the whole wired world. Operating systems like Windows 95 or 98 are insecure and have technical loopholes any experienced hacker can work their way through. "Linux and Unix are more secure compared to Windows, but due to their complexity only experienced users use them," says Deepesh Pradhan, director of Yomari Inc which designs web pages and develops software for companies.
Hackers have countless ways to enter your life through your computer. Cookies are small files that websites use to identify visitors. It's a tag that identifies your personal computer and this can also be used to retrieve information from your system. The possible material damage is insignificant compared to the emotional, mental, and physical trauma this can result in. In the US, a 25-year-old woman researching chat rooms gave away her identity on the net and started receiving mail divulging information about herself hardly anyone knew. The harassment got so bad that she committed suicide. Things here haven't reached that pass yet, but there are already tell-tale signs that it could happen. "This person I was chatting to kept sending me nasty emails. I eventually changed my email address," says 17-year-old Srijana.
Even more terrifying for parents of younger children is how paedophilia seems to have found its home on the net. In South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, many paedophiles find their targets chatting on the net. Authorities in Sri Lanka estimate that around 600 boys below 18 are used for paedophilia on the net. Children as young as ten are known to chat in Kathmandu, and not always at home, but also in cybercafes. The number and diversity of users in Nepal will only increase because of the ISP's price-wars. "The larger problem here is that its not impossible for some sexually frustrated, middle-aged person with sweaty palms to harass you," says Bela Malik, a teacher at Rato Bangala School, who is running a campaign to make her students aware of the dangers of the Internet. Malik feels young people should be encouraged to go out and meet real people rather than on the chat.
Nepali users are still in the dark about what can go wrong on the net, not because nothing can happen here, but because we're at an earlier stage of engagement with the net. Some people are waking up to this, and 11-year-old Serina, a regular net user and chatter is lucky: her parents ensure there is always someone to guide her when she is online. No one here is thinking yet of laws against crimes in cyberspace. Will we wait for the first cybercrime to happen before we think about safety on the Internet? Talk to your children and watch where they are clicking before we have our first juvenile cyber criminal or victim.