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Playing Internet Catch-Up

Playing Internet  Catch-Up

Government’s Dated Count of Internet Users can be ‘Potentially Misleading’

WASHINGTON — The government announced recently that 57 million Americans logged onto the Internet — in 1997. But among the lightning-fast changes in the online world, how useful is that?
Census analyst Eric Newburger acknowledges the government’s newest official figures are dated. But he says results, based on Census interviews with 50,000 people, were “quite illustrative” and “still very useful.”
Mark Rhodes, of the U.S. Internet Council trade group, says the figures will have “limited utility to the person who’s trying to plan ahead. There’s been a huge change since 1997.”
The difference between today and two years ago is nearly half a generation for the fast-paced Internet, where private industry researchers believe roughly 83 million American adults now spend time online.
What has changed? The Web, now with more than 5 million Internet addresses, just had passed the 1 million mark. America Online had half as many subscribers as today’s 18 million. Few companies advertised their online addresses. Computer prices have plummeted. And Bill Gates was worth a mere $39 billion — now he tops $90 billion.
The Census Bureau says it also found that 92 million U.S. adults used computers at work, home or school, but only 28 million adults regularly used the Internet at home. It also says 14 million children over age 3 used the Internet two years ago, with half logging on from home.
But those 1997 figures “will give us very little insight into what’s happening today,” says David Yoffie of Harvard University, the co-author of Competing on Internet Time. Changes have been so dramatic, he says, that relying on the older numbers to make public policy or business decisions “would be potentially misleading.”
Another expert, Donna Hoffman of Vanderbilt University, says even the older numbers still are “phenomenally useful” to researchers tracking the growth of the Internet from its earliest years.
“The tradeoff is, it’s a little behind but we’re able to be very confident and track trends clearly,” she says.
The government’s estimate of 57 million people over the age 3 who used the Internet regularly is remarkably close to the estimates of industry analysts — except those private researchers announced their 1997 numbers almost two years earlier.

— The Associated Press

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