OWID presents work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the original data source. This entry can be cited as:

Julia Murphy and Max Roser (2017) – ‘Internet’. Published online at Retrieved from: [Online Resource]

The internet has drastically changed the way we work, spend our leisure time and communicate with one another. It is estimated that the number of internet users worldwide is 3.2 billion (in 2015 – see below). In addition to this, there are an estimated 971 million websites currently online.1 The rise of the internet as well as the continued growth of access around the world and through different technologies is likely to continue to change our lives in unpredictable ways.

# Empirical View

# Growth of the Internet

The number of Internet users worldwide has skyrocketed since the birth of the World Wide Web. On the 20 December 1990, the world’s first website and server went live at CERN. The first ever website was published by the Internet’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on 6 August 1991 and in 1993 CERN made the World Wide Web available on a royalty free basis to the public domain. By 1993, there were 14 million Internet users worldwide and 130 websites.

Access to the Internet is almost universal in developed countries and although usage rates are much lower in the developing world, they are increasing. The chart below shows the increasing number of internet users.

# World map of internet access

The map shows the share of the population that is accessing the internet for all countries of the world.

# Increase of mobile phone users

An even more recent development is the use of internet enabled mobile devices including phones and tablet computers. The chart below shows the slow rise until the the late 1990s which gave way to the dramatic increase in mobile device subscriptions in the beginning of the 21st century.

# ARPNET: The Evolution of the Pre-Internet

Before the World Wide Web there was ARPANET, the first working packet switching network which allowed users to communicate with each other using their computers. ARPANET was a major advance in technology made by scientists in the Network Working Group (NWG). ARPANET was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which was formed by the government as a part research, part military agency. It is thought that the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 sparked the U.S to form ARPA. Dr J.C.R Licklider was one of the trailblazers in moving computers beyond the batch processing computer system and into systems of interactive digital communication (ARPANET). Licklider created Information Processing Techniques (IPT), an office he dedicated to researching advancement in computer technologies. Notable research outside of ARPA was led by Paul Baron and Thomas Marill. What follows is a brief timeline of the major developments to ARPNET:2

  • 1967: ARPA called for protocol specifications to be decided for the Interface Message Processor (IMP), it was decided that the hosts (participants’ computers) would be connected by AT&T phone lines.
  • 1968: The specifications for the IMP were finalised and ARPANET was given the green light and a several million dollar budget. BBN Technologies was given the contract to develop the ARPANET subnetwork. However, the communication protocol still was left to be developed, this task was opened up to the academic computer science community to work on.
  • 1969: UCLA’s Network Measurement Centre installed the first set of IMPs. The IMPs were also installed at Stanford, the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. On October 29th 1969 at 10:30pm UCLA graduate student Charles Kline typed ‘LO’ the first word into the system. He had been attempting to type “LOGIN” but the system went down, shortly after he was able to type the full word in and connect to a computer in the Stanford Research Institute 350 miles away. Although this was a significant step forward for computer technology, Larry Roberts from the University of Utah told NWG that they could do more. So NWG continued their research and came up with the Network Control Program (NCP) a host to host protocol designed to make, break and switch connects and to control traffic.
  • 1971: NWG had over 100 members who gave feedback on the development through the system ‘Request for Comments (RFC)’. This system allowed developers to make one sentence comments to question or suggest a change for the software. This informal, open network allowed democratic discussions amongst developers which was significant for a developing team at the time.
  • 1972: The first email was sent by Ray Tomlinson from BBN Technologies.
  • 1973: University College London and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway connect to ARPANET.
  • 1987: The number of hosts on the ARPNET had exceeded 20,000.
  • 1991: A year after Tim Berners-Lee developed HyperText Markup Language (HTML), CERN introduces the World Wide Web to the public marking the death of ARPANET.
The evolution of ARPANET from 1969 until it went defunct in 1990.3


# Content and Communication

The internet today is dominated by a small group of technology companies/websites. Collectively, they generate or store much of the content on the internet.

  • Youtube: In 2005 the first Youtube video was uploaded; it was 18 seconds long and only available to the then private audience of Youtube. Six months later Youtube became available to the public. Today, hundreds of millions of hours of video are watched everyday on Youtube with 300 hours of video uploaded every minute (12.5 days). (Sources: Official Youtube Blog, Youtube statistics)
  • Facebook: 1.49 billion monthly active users worldwide as of the 30th of June 2015. (Sources: Facebook Newsroom)
  • Apple iTunes: As of 2013, 25 billion songs had been downloaded from Apple’s online iTunes store. There were approximately 15,000 songs downloaded every minute from the iTunes store. (Source: Apple Press Release 06/02/2013)
  • Apple App Store: When Apple launched the App Store in 2008, it offered users 500 apps. In 2015, the App Store offers more than 1.4 million apps for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users in 155 countries around the world. (Sources: Apple Press Release 08/01/2015)
  • Amazon: There are over 3.7 million Kindle eBooks available through Amazon. (Source:
  • Netflix: There are over 62 million members from more than 50 countries who watch more than 100 million hours of TV shows and movies a day. (Source: Netflix Investor Relations)

The latest development in internet technology is the use of cloud services. The cloud refers to data stored remotely and accessed by the user through the internet, allowing users access to the data from any computer connected to the internet. It is estimated that there is over 1 exabyte (1 billion gigabytes) of data stored on the Cloud. There are three layers to the Cloud:4

  1. Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): allows you to rent and access storage space on the Internet, some firms offering this service are Amazon, Microsoft, Red Hat, VMWare and Rackspace.
  2. Platform as a service (PaaS): is a virtual operating system which allows app development for mobile devices and for the web, this service is offered by Microsoft Azure, and Google App Engine.
  3. Software as a service (SaaS): is an online service that allows the user to access a remote browser from their own online device, services include Netflix, Gmail and Dropbox.

Email is currently the standard way to communicate online whether it be for personal, business and governmental purposes. There are over 4.3 billion email accounts worldwide and there are around 196.3 billion email sent/received per day5 Google announced during its 2015 annual developer conference that the number of Gmail users has reached 900 million.6 Meanwhile, Microsoft has 400 million users with active accounts.7

# One Minute on the Internet- Our World in Data


# Digital Divide

Many were concerned that the dawn of the Internet would widen the gap between developed and developing nations. The digital divide is a social theory conceived in the late 1990s about the disadvantages for those who do not have good access to the Internet compared to those who do. Many predicted the gap would exponentially widen, however, by looking at data on price, speed and availability of the Internet it seems the gap is closing. The concern remains that although the access divide is not so great that the content divide is widening due to controls put in place by certain governments.8

Disparity between OECD and non-OECD economies in internet access and speed9

Broadband refers to wide bandwidth data transmission, which translates into faster internet connections. Before 2000, access to broadband was mainly limited to the most technologically developed economies, mostly in the far east — Hong Kong and South Korea being notable examples. Since 2000, broadband has spread throughout the world. However, many countries still lack the resources and infrastructure to boost internet speeds. Moreover, the digital divide is most apparent when comparing worldwide download speeds. The fastest download speeds are seen in North America, Europe and Eastern Asia. With South America, Africa, the Middle East, Southern Asia having much slower download speeds. To put these numbers into perspective, Skype requires a download speed of 1.5mbps for video calls, Youtube will stream a video at 360p with a download speed of 0.5mbps and you can watch Netflix with a download speed of 1.5mbps.10

Average download speeds in Mbps by country, 2014 – Speedtest.net11

average download speeds

# Breakdown of Internet Users

In 1996 the typical internet user was a white male with a college degree, midway through their career. At this point the internet was not yet commercialised and the only websites available were basic email and news websites. Although women were in the minority they used the internet to connect with each other. An electronic mailing list called Systers began in 1987 and connected technical women in computing. A quote from Kramarae and Taylor (1992) suggests society’s attitude about what use those other than white men may have had for the internet at this time, “women and other marginalized people use the internet to connect with kindred souls.”12

In 2014 the gender gap has almost been bridged with women making up almost half of all internet users. Those with degrees still outweigh those without but there has been a rapid increase in internet users of all education levels. This is likely due to how easy to use, widespread and affordable the internet has become. Those aged over 65 remain in the minority of users due to their unfamiliarity with technology and its advancements.

Internet user demographics in the United States – Pew Research Center13

Internet Demographics 1996 and 2014

# Internet access by platform

Since 2009 the number and share of mobile and tablet users has increased immensely as the chart below is showing. By October 2016 mobile and tablet internet usage exceeded desktops for the first time worldwide. This data is based on estimates from StatCounter (source).


# Correlates, Determinants, & Consequences

# The Internet’s Contribution to GDP

In 1987 the economist Robert Solow famously proclaimed: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” This caused many policy makers and economists to analyse the supposed ‘productivity paradox’. In Beyond the Productivity Paradox: Computers are the Catalyst for Bigger Changes written in 1998, Erik Brynjolfsson questioned to what extent computers increased productivity. He found that computers do increase productivity when staff using the computers are trained effectively. Brynjolfsson notes that the businesses which adequately trained their staff in using the new technology saw much greater returns than those that neglected to do so.14

Although this finding may seem obvious to us in today’s world where computers are ubiquitous and have undoubtedly improved productivity, this was not obvious to those living in a world where computers were new. In all developed countries today, computers are an integral part of education at all levels and even very young children are using computers. It is estimated today that the internet contributes to GDP more than traditional sectors like agriculture, utilities, mining and education!

The internet’s contribution to GDP in advanced economies – McKinsey & Company (2011)15

the internet

The Internet increases productivity by allowing market players to connect quickly and easily, this also increases information flows. Increasing information efficiency between markets is difficult to measure and is not included as in the Internet’s contribution to GDP although it is an important factor. From 1995 to 2000 productivity increased from its long-term growth rate of 1.4% per year to an average of 2.6 percent per year – this increase is credited to companies investing in training staff to work with the new technologies, from 2001 to 2003 productivity increased to 3.6% per year, from 2004 to 2006 the productivity rate fell to 1.3% due to a decline in IT investments, from 2007 to 2008 productivity returned to 2.4%.16 There is a very robust correlation across all countries between internet usage and measures of GDP. Countries with very high levels of internet usage tend to be the most developed.

# The Benefit of the Internet on GDP in Developed Countries v. Undeveloped Countries

The McKinsey Global Institute’s 2011 ‘Internet matters’ report found that the Internet’s contribution to GDP growth had been significantly higher in the developed world.17 There is around $450 billion added to global GDP growth each year by flows. However, the most connected countries receive 40% more of the benefit than the least connected. “Despite expectations that the Internet would enable emerging markets to participate as fully in global networks as developed economies do, emerging economies still lag behind in their broadband and digital infrastructure and quality and affordability of access. Therefore, they also trail in their production and consumption of valuable data and communication flows. In 2013, emerging markets accounted for only 24 percent of global online traffic, up from 10 percent in 2005 but still far below their share of Internet users. In per capita terms, the developed world’s lead is even larger. For example, per capita online traffic in Western Europe in 2013 was nearly 13 times that of online traffic in China and more than 20 times that of the Africa and Middle East region.”18

The internet’s Contribution to GDP for a select group of economies – McKinsey (2013)19

Contribution of the internet to GDP for various countries - McKinsey

# The Effects of the Internet on Education and Healthcare

In many ways the internet has transformed education at all levels. The ability for students to access learning materials online as well as for researchers to share findings and collaborate has revolutionised education. Where education used to be concentrated in universities or schools, it can now be accessed by billions of people (almost) anywhere in the world. This allows individuals in developing countries to learn independently and without the cost of tuition online. What is more, many leading research universities have begun making their course material online for anybody to access (MIT OpenCourseWare). Wikipedia has created the world’s largest resource of information that is continuously updated and monitored by experts and dedicated enthusiasts. We can see that years of education is highly correlated with internet access from the graph below; note that this is likely to be driven by the fact that internet access and education are correlated with overall development. For more information on the effect of the internet on the international research community see our page here.

Healthcare has also been transformed by the internet. It is now possible to receive advice and an online diagnosis from medical professionals through the internet. Apps are now being developed that can diagnose illnesses in developing countries where access to medical professionals is limited or expensive. One notable examples is the Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek) that detects cataracts and can conduct eye tests. The app was trailed on 233 people in Kenya and found that the phone performed as well as eye charts, the results of which are published in the JAMA Ophthalmology. More information and a full list of relevant publications can be found on their website

# The Effect of the Internet for Political Change

Technology helped to accelerate and organise the political revolution in Tunisia in 2010 which quickly across the entire Arab world during the Arab Spring. Activists in Tunisia used social media to raise awareness of police brutality through videos and photographs. These videos and photographs disproved the propaganda being broadcast through Tunisia’s state media. This generated support in the affluent parts of the country where more people got involved through the use of social media – primarily Facebook- to organise. Of Tunisia’s 10 million inhabitants only 2 million had access to Facebook and a mere 500 had access to Twitter, yet this was enough to spread awareness and ultimately bring down the ruling party.20 The videos showing the violence and horror which were uploaded to Facebook were picked up first in the Netherlands before eventually being transmitted worldwide.

Many countries, including China, Thailand and Iran, have cut off access to news and social media sites during times of political unrest. However, when the Egyptian government shut off access to the internet – not just blocking individual sites but shutting down internet service providers (ISPs) – it unprecedented in the history of the internet. The graph below shows how internet activity all but disappeared after the shutdown.21 During the five days that the Egyptian government closed the Internet Hackers from all around the world helped Egyptians connect with one another through basic mobile set ups using mesh networking.22

Internet traffic on the day it was shutdown in Egypt during the revolution, 2011 – Arbor Networks23


Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement was born out of the peoples’ frustration with the “corrosive influence of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.”24 Their slogan “we are the 99%” references the severe income inequality in the US. The initial protest was advertised through a blog post proposing the movements’ followers occupy Wall Street peacefully. A Facebook page was created for the movement and featured videos of the protests. The movement relied heavily on social media and online messaging to communicate and publicise between the ranks. Protesters created an ‘information area’ which contained laptops and wireless routers on which they ran unofficial websites, live streams and Skype calls for other protesters.

The world map below shows how much freedom users have on the Internet within their country. Freedom on the Internet means the government does not control, block or monitor online content. Citizens of countries where the Internet is not free or partially free risk arrest for many types of online expression as their governments fear and oppose the open nature of the Internet. For more information on democracy and political freedom, visit our dedicated page here.

# Map of internet freedom – Freedom House25

map copy

# The Internet’s Influence on Job Creation

While technology has destroyed jobs in many old industries, rising employment demonstrates its ability to also create new jobs. Examples of entirely new, online-only jobs can be found in Youtube channels and online blogs. More than a million advertisers use Google ad platforms and top Youtube Creators were found to be more popular than mainstream celebrities among US teenagers. Partner revenue is over 50% and more than a million Youtube channels in dozens of countries are earning revenue from the Youtube Partner Programme with thousands of channels making 6 figures per year.26

In 2013, the Airbnb community generated US$824 million in economic activity in the UK and supported 11,600 jobs.The study found that Airbnb generated $175 million in economic activity in Barcelona in one year alone and supported more than 4,000 jobs.27 Similar examples can be found in Uber, which through the internet has revolutionsed the taxi business worldwide.

# Pornography: The Internet’s Quiet Catalyst?

Internet pornography is credited by many for creating a demand for higher bandwidth, for commercialising the Internet in 1990, for developing technologies to stream video online in 1994, for creating the webcam in 1996 and for creating subtitles and closed captioning for the hearing impaired.28 Nowadays, although it is difficult to find exact statistics due to the nature of the industry, Internet pornography is estimated to take up around 30% of Internet traffic. Internet pornography is also known to have commercialised the Internet and still takes over $1 billion.29 As the mainstream market takes over the Internet porn makes up a smaller slice of Internet content. Barss estimates around 80% of modern technologies we owe to pornography.30

Pornography is illegal in many countries, primarily China, the Middle East and Northern Africa. The People’s Republic of China banned pornography in 1949 under a law condemning anything that “violat[es] public morality and harm[s] the physical and mental health of youth and young people.”31 Pornography is prohibited in Islamic countries. In the past India has attempted to ban pornography but with little success for a number of reasons including India’s history of celebrating sex.32 Liberal Iceland has strict laws against pornography because it goes against the feminist values of the country.

World Map of Pornography (18+) Laws – Wikipedia33

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 10.55.03 AM

The map below shows the pornography consumption in the United States. Unsurprisingly, liberal states Nevada, Illinois and Massachusetts have some of the highest rates of porn consumption and more conservative states like Montana, Wyoming and and Idaho have relatively low rates of porn consumption. Although pornography has negative stigma particularly among religious groups, the conservative evangelical Protestant south eastern and south central states, nicknamed the “Bible Belt”, do not have as a low a porn consumption as might be expected.

Map of US porn consumption by state, 200 – Lee34

pornography map

# Data Sources

# The World Bank- World Development Indicators
  • Data: Total Population (in number of people), Internet Users (per 100 people), Fixed (wired) broadband subscriptions (per 100 people), Mobile cellular subscriptions
  • Geographical Coverage: Worldwide
  • Time Span: Dependent on data set but generally 1980-2014
  • Available at:

# Internet and GDP data – McKinsey (2011)

“The great transformer: The impact of the Internet on Economic Growth and Prosperity” McKinsey & Company- McKinsey Global Institute, James Manyika and Charles Roxburgh, October 2011

  • Data: A study on capturing the benefits of the Internet
  • Geographical Coverage: Worldwide
  • Time Span: 1996-2011
  • Available at:

# Jobs and the Internet – McKinsey (2011)

“Internet matters: The Net’s sweeping impact on growth, jobs, and prosperity” Matthieu Pélissié du Rausas, James Manyika, Eric Hazan, Jacques Bughin, Michael Chui, Rémi Said for McKinsey & Company, May 2011

  • Data: A report on the Internet’s impact on growth, jobs, and prosperity which helps to ‘explain the direct link between the Internet and economic vitality’
  • Geographical Coverage: G8 economies and Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and Sweden
  • Time Span: 1996-2011
  • Available at: