Apple 2.0

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The CIA underestimates how big the Internet is in China by 127 million users

December 4, 2010: 3:16 PM ET

The numbers in the Central Intelligence Agency's Factbook are nearly three years out of date

Click to enlarge. Sources: The World Factbook, Wikipedia

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has its priorities, but keeping track of who's using the Internet doesn't seem to be one of them.

Take, for example, China.

According to the current edition of the CIA's World Factbook -- updated within the last two weeks -- there are 298 million Internet users in the world's most populous nation.

According to Wikipedia the number is closer to 425 million.

Why should we trust Wikipedia more than the CIA?

For one thing, Wikipedia's data are fresher. The page these numbers came from was last updated on Nov. 30. The "date of information" on the CIA's list ranges from 2001 to 2008.

And where does Wikipedia get its information? That's not exactly clear. Some of it was obviously lifted from the CIA Factbook. The rest seems to come from an outfit called Internet World Stats, which in turn cites "data published by Nielsen Online, by the International Telecommunications Union, by GfK, local Regulators and other reliable sources."

All this matters because many companies -- whether they know it or not -- rely on the U.S. government to stay on top of these things. Apple (AAPL), for example, likes to cite NetApplications to show how rapidly its Internet share is growing. NetApplications, in turns, weighs the county-by-county data it collects from client websites using -- you guessed it -- the CIA Factbook.

Thanks to reader KenC for bringing this to our attention.

Below: The two lists compared for the top 30 countries.

Rank Country CIA Wikipedia Difference % Diff.
1 China 298,000,000 425,000,000 127,000,000 42.6%
2 United States 231,000,000 240,000,000 9,000,000 3.9%
3 Japan 90,910,000 99,150,000 8,240,000 9.1%
4 India 81,000,000 81,000,000 0 0.0%
5 Brazil 64,948,000 75,943,000 10,995,000 16.9%
6 Germany 61,973,000 65,200,000 3,227,000 5.2%
7 United Kingdom 48,755,000 51,450,000 2,695,000 5.5%
8 Russia 45,250,000 60,000,000 14,750,000 32.6%
9 France 42,912,000 44,630,000 1,718,000 4.0%
10 Korea, South 37,476,000 39,500,000 2,024,000 5.4%
11 Indonesia 30,000,000 30,000,000 0 0.0%
12 Spain 25,240,000 29,759,000 4,519,000 17.9%
13 Canada 25,086,000 26,224,900 1,138,900 4.5%
14 Italy 24,992,000 34,000,000 9,008,000 36.0%
15 Turkey 24,483,000 35,000,000 10,517,000 43.0%
16 Mexico 23,260,000 68,430,000 45,170,000 194.2%
17 Iran 23,000,000 33,200,000 10,200,000 44.3%
18 Vietnam 20,834,000 24,269,083 3,435,083 16.5%
19 Poland 18,679,000 22,450,600 3,771,600 20.2%
20 Pakistan 18,500,000 18,500,000 0 0.0%
21 Colombia 17,117,000 21,529,415 4,412,415 25.8%
22 Malaysia 16,903,000 16,902,600 -400 0.0%
23 Thailand 16,100,000 17,486,400 1,386,400 8.6%
24 Australia 15,170,000 17,033,826 1,863,826 12.3%
25 Taiwan 15,143,000 16,130,000 987,000 6.5%
26 Netherlands 14,273,000 14,890,200 617,200 4.3%
27 Egypt 11,414,000 17,060,000 5,646,000 49.5%
28 Argentina 11,212,000 26,615,000 15,403,000 137.4%
29 Nigeria 11,000,000 43,985,000 32,985,000 299.9%
30 Ukraine 10,354,000 15,400,000 5,046,000 48.7%

. . .
[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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