Up to a billion people using the internet in developing countries are being ignored by web statistics, which focus on US-based servers and ignore mobile-only users and shared devices, according to a new study.
The result is a form of “digital imperialism,” according to a new study from Global Web Index (GWI), a digital measurement company that provides information to a wide range of some of the web’s biggest advertisers and brands such as Twitter. . Because these users don’t show up or are supposed to be in mature economies, they’re not targeted for advertising – or branding that’s important to establishing businesses.
A new study from GWI indicates that part of the reason is the widespread use of VPNs, or virtual private networks, which encrypt internet links and allow users to bypass systems of censorship and location-based blocking. An estimated 416 million people use VPNs, he says.
Another confounding factor is the sharing of devices among multiple people – which could mean up to 417 million are underestimated – and the widespread use in emerging economies of the mobile-only internet, which is poorly measured. by conventional web crawls, but could miss up to 168 million people.
It could also lead to a misalignment of aid and web-building efforts in developing countries if actual use is not recognized.
The direct effect, however, is to trick advertisers and service providers into believing that the internet audience in emerging economies is much smaller than it actually is. “We noticed a disparity between the geographic distribution of other data collection organizations and our own data showing much larger populations in India and China, for example, than they did,” Jason Mander, manager of GWI Trends and co-author of the report. , the Guardian said.
Aodhan Cullen of Statcounter, a real-time web analytics company based in Dublin, said: “It’s a really good report – it highlights some important things that are often overlooked and some people even try to hide.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, there are approximately 2.9 billion Internet users, of which 639 million are in North and South America and 1.3 billion in Asia and the Pacific. While ITU data is collected directly from affected countries, GWI argues that other measurement techniques – which many advertisers rely on to determine where to allocate spending internationally – are flawed.
GWI actively collects data in 32 countries by polling Internet users, unlike many other measurement companies that collect “passive data” on Internet usage by examining web analytics that rely on the IP address of the Internet. ‘an Internet connection to determine the user’s location. Since huge amounts of data flow through US-based servers or servers registered with companies with US-based IP addresses – even if the server is not physically in the US – there is a huge disparity in measurement, according to the study.
GWI points to huge disparities in the data collected by a web metering service, suggesting that in the first three months of 2014, 22% of Facebook traffic came from the United States, 8% from India and 4% of Brazil, China representing less than 1% – which could be expected because the social network is prohibited there.
But GWI’s own data, collected from users by asking them “which of the following sites have you visited in the past month?” »Over the same period, shows that the United States would only represent 15% of Facebook visits, against 13% for India and 13% for China, Brazil representing 7%.
This underscores the importance of VPNs, which allow people to create encrypted point-to-point “tunnels” online – so that they appear to be accessing the net from the remote end of the VPN, rather than from their own computer. Many Chinese users access Facebook and Twitter through VPNs to bypass the “great firewall,” which otherwise blocks them inside the country.
“The highest VPN usage among the population in terms of percentage was Indonesia,” Mander said: 42% had used them there, or 25 million internet users. China is by far the largest user of VPNs in absolute terms, with 166 million users, representing around 36% of its internet population according to GWI figures.
“One-third of the internet users in the world are in China, so when something gets big there, it has a big effect on the internet around the world,” said Mander, who says the VPN user is often motivated by the desire to access locally banned social networks. , or geographically restricted content such as the Netflix movie streaming service or the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service.
The sharing of devices among large households and the large number of exclusively mobile users in emerging markets also lead to large measurement error, according to GWI. Data from three major Chinese telecommunications companies, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, suggests that there are 540 million mobile broadband users with 3G or 4G connections, and just under 420 million users. fixed Internet. While there may be a substantial overlap between the two, mobile clearly dominates.
But measuring mobile users is difficult because traditional cookie-based systems used for PCs are inefficient on many mobiles.
For Statcounter, Cullen said it was impossible to tell if people were using VPNs, but it was more important to focus on long-term trends in internet use by geography than to try to calculate the exact number of users at any time. “What people want is a consistent methodology – we don’t weight by a country’s population, we just measure pageviews.”
Recently, large internet companies have launched a number of initiatives to try to connect with users in Africa and the Asian subcontinent. Google launched the Android One program in India, which aims to create a unified low-cost Android smartphone experience; he also started Project Loon, which aims to bring internet connectivity to huge areas using floating balloons. Facebook is working separately on Facebook Connectivity, which aims to use drones to provide low-cost connectivity.
This is important, says Mander, because otherwise the people of these countries are ignored. “Their overall Internet experience is poorer – with fewer services and less content available to them – because the money that could be spent in fast-growing markets is instead channeled into mature Internet countries where we assumes – potentially wrongly – that larger audiences are located, ”he said.