Internet Census and Use Estimates

GGD-97-102R: Published: May 12, 1997. Publicly Released: May 12, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information relevant to the proposed national Internet census, focusing on: (1) the range of current estimates of Internet access and usage in the United States; (2) key concepts related to defining the "capacity" of the Internet; and (3) additional issues where there are questions about the federal role in the development of the Internet. GAO did not verify the estimates of Internet access and use and its capacity that were made available on Web pages it accessed between February and April 1997.

GAO noted that: (1) estimates of the current use of the Internet or access to its services vary widely; (2) one Internet source gathered private sector estimates of use and access that were made between July 1996 and January 1997 and reported a range between 5.8 million users and 35 million with access; (3) a subsequent estimate put the Internet population at 47 million, but noted that "relatively few are "heavy" users"; (4) there are several reasons for the range of estimates; (5) surveys employed different definitions of use and access; (6) studies conducted at different times may have substantially different results because of the rapid growth in Internet usage in the United States; (7) studies did not have a uniform methodology for estimating Internet usage; (8) however, while the different sources disagreed on the level of Internet use and access, they did agree that regardless of how it may be measured, Internet activity is increasing at a fast rate; (9) this fast growth, in turn, may complicate the task of measuring the level of activity; (10) by design, the Internet is decentralized, complicating both the definition and measurement of its capacity; (11) while there have been complaints about Internet congestion, there is no way to conclusively demonstrate the extent to which this is actually occurring or what causes underlie any congestion; (12) the rapid growth in the Internet also makes it difficult to precisely define its capacity; (13) a key question, however, is whether the available capacity is being used efficiently; (14) new technologies are presently being designed and deployed that are intended to increase the ability of the Internet to transmit messages and data; (15) while the federal government played a key part in the creation of the Internet, its role has been decreasing during the recent growth in Internet usage; (16) the Federal Communications Commission is considering whether there is a more efficient way to charge Internet service providers (ISP) for phone lines used to provide Internet access to their customers; (17) ISPs and several other businesses providing Internet services and Internet-related products oppose such changes; (18) debate continues over proposals to restrict encryption technology that can render messages sent over the Internet unreadable to anyone but the intended recipient, with privacy concerns competing against law enforcement and national security needs to intercept and decipher messages; and (19) an interagency task force is working to develop a consistent federal strategy to address policy issues posed by growing Internet use.

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