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

Updated: Dec 04, 2010 8:16 PM UTC

The numbers in the Central Intelligence Agency's Factbook are nearly three years out of date

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?

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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.

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RankCountryCIAWikipediaDifference% Diff.
1China298,000,000425,000,000127,000,00042.6%
2United States231,000,000240,000,0009,000,0003.9%
3Japan90,910,00099,150,0008,240,0009.1%
4India81,000,00081,000,00000.0%
5Brazil64,948,00075,943,00010,995,00016.9%
6Germany61,973,00065,200,0003,227,0005.2%
7United Kingdom48,755,00051,450,0002,695,0005.5%
8Russia45,250,00060,000,00014,750,00032.6%
9France42,912,00044,630,0001,718,0004.0%
10Korea, South37,476,00039,500,0002,024,0005.4%
11Indonesia30,000,00030,000,00000.0%
12Spain25,240,00029,759,0004,519,00017.9%
13Canada25,086,00026,224,9001,138,9004.5%
14Italy24,992,00034,000,0009,008,00036.0%
15Turkey24,483,00035,000,00010,517,00043.0%
16Mexico23,260,00068,430,00045,170,000194.2%
17Iran23,000,00033,200,00010,200,00044.3%
18Vietnam20,834,00024,269,0833,435,08316.5%
19Poland18,679,00022,450,6003,771,60020.2%
20Pakistan18,500,00018,500,00000.0%
21Colombia17,117,00021,529,4154,412,41525.8%
22Malaysia16,903,00016,902,600-4000.0%
23Thailand16,100,00017,486,4001,386,4008.6%
24Australia15,170,00017,033,8261,863,82612.3%
25Taiwan15,143,00016,130,000987,0006.5%
26Netherlands14,273,00014,890,200617,2004.3%
27Egypt11,414,00017,060,0005,646,00049.5%
28Argentina11,212,00026,615,00015,403,000137.4%
29Nigeria11,000,00043,985,00032,985,000299.9%
30Ukraine10,354,00015,400,0005,046,00048.7%

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]