In a few years Chinese Internet users will outnumber American Internet users, and the resulting "shifting language balance" could generate significant tensions in cyberspace, according to a new report from the Pew Internet Trust and American Life Project.
The Chinese have a significantly different approach to the Internet, the report noted, involving censorship, monitoring, layers of accountability, and tens of thousands of "Internet police." Pornographers can be hanged.
"The difference between Chinese and Western approaches to the Internet could create additional sore points over human rights and problems with restrictions on non-Chinese companies," the report added.
Differences emerge even at the local level—the report recounts the story of a village where the school teachers went online first and chose to filter content before disseminating it, and resisted efforts by others to get online.
Not buying it
Vikram Sehgal isn’t buying the idea that an increasing Chinese presence in cyberspace will have any impact outside China. He’s a research director at Jupiter Research in New York who has also done global studies of Internet demographics.
"I don’t think it’s an issue at all," Sehgal told LiveScience. "There’s plenty of room on the Internet for everybody."
He pointed to European Web sites, which often offer the user multiple language options, with no hint of controversy. Anyway, a lot of Chinese users speak English, and English is used for some Chinese e-commerce activity, he added.
As for demographic predictions, Sehgal’s figures showed that the number of Chinese and U.S. Internet users will be at a dead heat in 2011. By then, the United States should have online penetration of 76 percent, or 238 million Internet users (defined as those who get online at least monthly.) China will have a penetration of only 16 or 17 percent, but its population of more than 1.3 billion means that there will be 234 million users—a statistical dead heat.
But the combined number of European and North American users in 2011 will be 688 million, which will still swamp the Chinese presence, Sehgal added.
Rise of India
The three largest Internet-using populations in 2011 will be in China, the United States, and Japan, but the fourth will be in often-overlooked India.
India has gotten off to a slower start than China, with a current penetration of only 3 or 4 percent, but Sehgal expects its user growth rate to mirror China’s, increasing at 14 percent annually. That should give it a user population of 81 million by 2011.
There are 28 official languages in India (including English), but most of the e-commerce activity is in English, he noted.
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