China claims to top U.S. for Internet population lead

But it still lags well behind in the percentage of residents who are going online

China has proclaimed itself to be the world's largest online market, with a total of 221 million Internet users as of the end of February, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported Thursday.

The claim by the English-language publication was based on statistics cited by the Chinese government's Ministry of Information Industry, which received the data from the China Internet Network Information Center. The center, which is known by the acronym CNNIC, is a quasi-governmental organization that reports to the MII.

The China Daily story follows a report issued last month by BDA China, a Beijing-based telecommunications consulting and research firm, stating that China had overtaken the U.S. in total number of Internet users.

But China's large population made taking over the top spot relatively easy. The country still lags well behind the U.S. in the percentage of their respective populations that use the Internet. China currently has only a 16% Internet penetration among its residents — lower than the worldwide average of 19.1%, and well below the 72% usage rate in the U.S. The latter figure is based on an estimate by market research firm Nielsen/Netratings that there were about 218 million Internet users in the U.S. during March.

China began allowing individuals to access the Internet via dial-up services in 1995. In August 1996, the government began filtering and blocking Web sites that it found objectionable, including pornography and foreign news sites as well as ones related to sensitive political issues, such as Taiwan and the Tibet independence movement.

That practice continues today, but China has promised full and unrestricted Internet access during August's 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing despite concerns among security officials about possible cyberattacks.

According to survey results issued by the CNNIC in January (download PDF), the number of Internet users in China grew 53% during 2007, ending the year at about 210 million. The CNNIC, which defines a user as anyone who accesses the Internet at least once a month, said that 40% of the new users last year live in rural areas. However, China's Internet population still comes largely from major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

The CNNIC's report also disclosed that for the first time last year, the top Internet application in China was downloading music. The report said that 86.6% of users said they connected to the Internet to listen to music. Meanwhile, 81% used instant messaging tools, while only 56.5% used e-mail.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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