By Laura Rohde

IDG News Service

The number of people using the Internet worldwide continued to grow in 2002, though the increase was slower than in 2001, according to figures released by the United Nations (U.N.).

Worldwide, 592 million people had Internet access in 2002, though the annual rate of growth dropped to 20 per cent from 27 per cent in 2001, according to the yearly “E-Commerce and Development Report,” issued last week by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

UNCTAD established its numbers based on the global index of information and communication technology (ICT) access put together by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva, coupled with its own calculations.

The digital divide between developed countries like the U.S., which has the highest rate of Internet users in the world, and developing countries is still wide, though the developing countries are experiencing faster growth due in part to demographic patterns such as younger populations and faster overall population growth, the report said.

In 2002, there was 12 per cent growth in Internet users in developed countries, to 401.7 million users. That compares to an almost 40 per cent jump for developing countries to 189.9 million Internet users. Despite the jump, slightly less than 10 per cent of the world’s population had access to the Internet by the end of 2002, the report said.

Internet hosts are also more concentrated in the developed world, with North America and Europe accounting for 89 per cent of all Internet hosts.