The Internet is a global network of computers linked by high-speed data lines and wireless systems.  It was established in 1969 as a military communications system.  It allows individuals to access information from many sources using a computer.  The use of the Internet more than doubled in size in 1995 and has done so every year since 1988, becoming the fastest-growing communications medium ever. 

Measuring the real Internet population, its use disaggregated by sex, the size of the potential demand and the trends for growth is difficult, and results are often contradictory.  The special nature of the medium and its rapid development throw up new figures every day.  Some sources have estimated that a new web site is launched on the Internet every four seconds. 

It is difficult to gauge reliably the size and demographic profile of users, because user-tracking software remains inadequate, and it is not possible, for example, to distinguish new "hits" from repeat visits to a site.  Nevertheless it is estimated that the Internet links 50 million users in more than 80 countries world-wide.  Some consider that this will increase to around 300 million in the next five years. 

The WWW is the fastest-growing segment of the Internet, growing at rate of 3000 per cent every year.  It allows exchange of multimedia data (text, audio, video, graphics and animation) between users connected to the Internet using hypertext links. 

In the United States, which has taken the lead in the market, data suggest that there are between 16.4 million and 37 million people (in the U.S. and Canada) who have access to the Internet, spending an average of 5 hours 28 minutes per week on line.  Users in Europe are 5 to 8 million or more.  In Japan, there are approximately 4 million users.  In Latin America, electronic mail is rapidly replacing regular mail, as it is much more efficient.  In Africa, new Internet domains have been registered in the last year in Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Madagascar.  In countries such as Kenya, Namibia and Senegal, the number of domains is rising rapidly.  Kenya has around 133, compared with South Africa's more than 83,000. 

The Internet Society expects 120 million hosts to be connected to the Internet by the end of the decade, up from 9.5 million in 1996.  Markets for Internet-related products may be largely a function of access.  Many countries in the developing world do not have access to computers; some do not have reliable electricity or telephone service to support the CNTs, and in places where the capacity exists or is growing, there is need for training, and for resources for time on line. 

Supporting technology transfer from industrialised to developing countries, some assistance is being given by international organisations, bilateral donors and computer companies for acquisition of computers and training.  For example, since 1994 the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has increased the number of electronic domains - mother computers under which host computers are hooked into the Internet in Africa.  The UNDP Sustainable Development Networking Programme is heading an effort to bring connectivity to developing countries in a participatory manner that would enable women's and other groups to have access to the Internet.  USAID, with the Leland initiative, is another significant player - focused on Africa. 

Use of the Internet is spreading rapidly because of the relatively low cost of the basic infrastructure.  However, the information revolution has continued to perpetuate many inequalities.  The majority of people around the world do not participate on an equal basis, either as participants or as producers. 

While the potential of the new medium has been recognised, it is clear that until its use has spread to developing countries, and to all groups in society, including women, it reinforces existing inequalities.  Mr. Mathe Diseko, First Secretary of the South African Permanent Mission to the United Nations, stated in a speech to the United Nations Economic and Social Council on 16 July 1996 that : 

For those in possession of information technology, power, influence, privileged status and domination are further enhanced and assured.  The reverse is true for those without access to informatics.  But it has also great chances of contributing to equity, development and progress, permitting those lagging behind to leap-frog to more advanced stages of development.  Informatics has enormous potential to redress the disparities and material inequalities of our world the cheapest and fastest way.  But in it are also great possibilities of accentuating our material inequalities, the powerlessness of the have - nots and the misery of millions bypassed by the information superhighway. 

The Taub Urban Research Center at New York University published a study based on data gathered by two consulting firms in the United States.  Entitled "Leaders and Losers on the Internet", it addresses the impact of the Internet on urbanization.  It notes that while many predicted that global computer networking could decentralize work and living patterns, to date the impact of the Internet has been mainly to reinforce the economic and intellectual leadership of a handful of urban centres and nearby suburbs.  Computer science Professor David Gelernter of Yale University, in commenting on the study, said that it showed that Internet connections were spreading beyond university - and computer - based origins into centres of affluent, well-educated people.  He expressed doubts, however, about the economic and cultural advantages of having many Internet connections.  The introduction of CNTs is raising new questions about the theory of technology led urban decline in industrialized societies.  For developing countries, it may become another of the factors attracting people to urban areas. 

While the new medium includes the potential for democratizing information and communications as a result of its interactive and participatory nature, evidence suggests that fewer women than men use the new technologies and that the computer environment is often hostile or denigrating to women and includes forms of sexual harassment.  Women, nevertheless, are a fast-growing segment of the Internet's user population. 

Sources estimate that 82 per cent of Internet users worldwide are male; others estimate that 34 per cent of Internet users are women.  Most of the female users seem to be located in North America, especially in the United States.  Even in the United States, the estimate of female Internet users varies from 29 per cent to 36 per cent. 

Surveys have shown that men are much more likely than women to use the WWW.  However, women are slightly more likely than men to use Internet mailing lists, underscoring a strong predisposition among women toward Internet communications features.  Women are also more likely than men to use the Internet exclusively, men are more likely to use it from multiple locations, including after-hours use from home. 

"Internet Navigation needs to be more intuitive with men, the computer tends to be perceived as a gadget.... women see the computer more as an efficiency vehicle." 

Jodi Deleon, Microsoft Network Product Manager, quoted in 
"What Women want On-Line", Interactive Media & Marketing, 6 November 1995 

The contribution of women to Internet tools such as the UseNet newsgroups is "typically not very high, but the actual numbers are subject to debate.  In the unmoderated feminist newgroups, approximately 80 per cent of the messages are posted by men.  In the moderated feminist groups, there is usually about a 50/50 balance between women." Different networks attract different audiences. 

SeniorNet, a consumer-oriented on-line-service available on America On-line that caters to the 'mature market' reports that their audience mix is 51 per cent female and 49 per cent male.  For other services such as CompuServe, Genie and Prodigy "between 60-90 per cent of the customers are male."  





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