Worldwide, Sweden gets the most out of using the Internet, according to a new study from a foundation that seeks to expand access to the Web.
That puts the Northern European nation a world away from most countries, where the Internet is still a luxury. Only one in three people around the globe use the Web, the foundation said, and the share of Internet users is even slimmer in Africa.
The rankings are an ambitious attempt by the World Wide Web Foundation, a nonprofit group with offices in the U.S., Switzerland and South Africa, to sum up how different countries use the Internet, factoring in access, infrastructure and what information is available to users. Its "Web Index" attempts to measure not just whether people can use the Internet, but what they get from it.
"We want to take this issue about whether or not people are a part of the information society and help increase awareness that it's as important as access to water and vaccinations –- it's not a secondary issue," Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee said in the newly released report.
Money is the main reason the World Wide Web isn't really worldwide, the group said. Broadband connections to the Internet cost almost half the average monthly income across dozens of countries surveyed. In Africa, getting access to the Web cost more than the average monthly income, the group found, compared with less than 5% of the average monthly income in the Americas and just 1.7% in Europe.
Sweden was followed in the rankings by the United States, Britain, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Ireland -- all countries with relatively high average incomes.
However, Qatar, which has even higher average incomes than those countries, fell lower on the list because the Web has had limited political effect there -- a factor that the foundation measured by political parties using the Internet to mobilize voters and governments using the Web to seek more citizen participation and feedback.
The study did not probe deeply into issues of government censorship, but Berners-Lee said he hopes future versions of the Web Index will do so, calling suppression of free speech "possibly the single biggest challenge to the future of the Web."
The question of how the Internet will shape future societies remains an open one, even amid enthusiasm over its spread and capabilities. Although the use of Twitter and other social media tools to mobilize "Arab Spring" protests last year inspired hope that the Web would open up societies and seed democracy, skeptics warn that it has also been an apt tool for repression.
"Transparency and efficiency should not be pursued for their own sake. They should serve as enabling factors to other goods and values," technology author Evgeny Morozov told The Times in June.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A young man plays a computer game at an Internet cafe in Beijing in 2005. Credit: Greg Baker / Associated Press