The term "Internet users" includes subscribers who pay for Internet access (dial-up, leased line and fixed broadband) and people who have access without paying directly, either as a member of a household or from work, school, a public library or Internet café. Therefore, the total number of Internet users can be two or three times the number of actual Internet subscribers.
Widespread use of the Internet was prompted by the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1992. In a short time its use spread to corporations and to individuals, but, by 1995, only 16 million people worldwide, less than a half percent of the world's population, were online. However, by 2000 that percentage grew to 5% (304 million) and doubled by 2003; by 2005 the number of users worldwide passed 1 billion, or more than 15% of the population, and has continued to grow steadily, doubling again.
English, Chinese and Spanish are the languages used most often on the Internet, accounting for almost 60%, but Chinese has seen the most growth, with a more than 1000% increase since 2000 (compared with 237% for English).
In addition to the obvious beneficial effects on productivity, Internet access has socio-economic effects, including acquisition of knowledge and skills that are required for jobs and education.
The "digital divide" within a country—richer, urban dwellers having more access to the Internet and poorer, rural dwellers with less—and between countries affects the potential of many people to access its benefits. The "global digital divide" causes some countries to fall even further behind in technology, education, labor, democracy and tourism. One of the barriers to Internet access within countries is the limited availability of fixed broadband access. The introduction of high-speed mobile Internet access has the potential to greatly change this.
According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the leading United Nations agency for information and communication technology issues, by the end of 2011 2.3 billion people worldwide had access to the Internet, the largest number ever.
The growth in the number of Internet users was greatest in developing countries, where it doubled between 2007 and 2011. However, overall people in the developing world remain far behind those in the developed world, with only 25% of them online by the end of the year. On average, 70% of citizens of developed countries had access to the Internet by the end of 2011, with peaks of over 90% in countries such Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Examples of countries that over perform regional averages are Lebanon and Malaysia, with, respectively, 62% and 61% of households having access to the Internet compared to 20% of other countries in their regions.
Although total international Internet bandwidth increased seven-fold since 2007, significant differences between users of different regions remain. The average user in Europe has access to 25 times the capacity as a user in Africa.