The Indian government has shown troubling tendencies of late when it comes to granting citizens unfettered access to the Internet. After months of accusations and denials over the legal framework that is widely seen by many to clamp down on free speech, the situation has, not surprisingly, descended into a farce. Recently, activists of Anonymous, an online hacking group, organized protests across 16 cities in India against Internet censorship.
The protests were widely covered in the media but really didn’t generate the public enthusiasm you would expect for such an issue. The Internet is simply not a hot topic for the vast majority of citizens.
Despite all this, one would still assume that overall India does more for Internet access than China.
Far from it.
According to one January estimate published by the BBC News website, India has an Internet user base of some 120 million. And the vast majority of these are urban. The Internet and Mobile Association of India estimates that around 2% of rural Indians have access to the Web. (This number may or may not include several million exclusively mobile Internet users. Connectivity data has the same reliability as most other government data.)
China is estimated to have 132 million Internet users just in rural areas. (Mostly, thanks to a push in the 11th Five-Year Plan in 2006 on rural access to information and communication technology.) This is around one-third of its total Internet user base of some 400 million. Despite the general impression that the Chinese state is petrified of the Internet, and it undoubtedly is, it has done far more for Internet penetration than India.
A recent study by a researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that this massive rural Internet penetration statistic in China might actually be an understatement.
In The Sent-Down Internet: Going Online in Rural China, Elisa Oreglia of University of California Berkeley’s School of Information says that traditional means of surveying rural Internet use are flawed. Simply asking people if they use the Web is meaningless. It turns out that people who say no to such surveys use intermediaries, including children, to access information. Oreglia says that “this allows people who would otherwise be left out to also participate in the new world of Internet-mediated communication and entertainment”. So, in fact, China’s effective base of Internet users could be much higher than current data indicates.
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