As an industry, the Internet is one of the most dynamic and evolving sectors of the U.S. and world economies. Growth in the use of the Internet has been phenomenal. While it is difficult to come up with exact figures, in mid-2019 Internet World Stats (https://www.internetworldstats.com) estimated that more than 89 percent of the North American population used the Internet. As the general public's access to the Internet has grown, the ways in which the Internet can be used have also increased. E-commerce (business-to-business sales and business-to-consumer sales), advertising, distance education programs, banking, e-filing tax forms, Web conferencing, and bill payment are just a few of the Internet applications now available.
The Internet industry itself is as varied as the products and services it delivers. Internet service providers (ISP), such as cable companies Comcast and CharterSpectrum, provide businesses and consumers with Internet access. Search engine companies, such as Google and Yahoo!, maintain specialized Web sites that index Web sites and help users find information on the World Wide Web. Countless e-commerce companies sell products online. These range from online retailers (Amazon) to digital stores for brick-and-mortar businesses (Best Buy) to sites that allow individuals to sell directly to other individuals (eBay). Internet companies such as Microsoft and Oracle develop cutting-edge hardware and software to keep the Internet running. Others, such as McAfee and Symantec, produce security programs for average computer users as well as international businesses and government agencies. Driving much of the business transacted online are advertising, marketing, and sales companies.
Many companies capitalize on the Internet as a medium. User-generated content and free content provided by media companies is a staple of the Internet. Likewise, social media companies, such as Facebook and YouTube, have garnered enormous followings by offering users a free platform supported by advertising revenue to share their ideas, pictures, and videos. Online gaming companies have also been wildly successful with massive multi-player online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, and simple social games, such as Words with Friends. Online gambling has also grown in popularity.
All of this activity, though, occurs because the many branches of the Internet industry work together to keep things running as smoothly as possible. But the Internet is constantly changing. Technology, consumer preferences, and other industry developments will make today’s Internet almost unrecognizable in the future. The growth of mobile computing is changing the way content is prepared and viewed and how advertisers reach potential customers. A number of different trends are shaping the evolution of the industry.
Social commerce is a subsector of e-commerce that relies on social media to sell products and services by allowing users of services, such as Facebook and Twitter, to purchase things promoted by their “friends,” “followers,” and other users. In 2019, Statista reported that 30 percent of U.S. Internet users aged 18 to 34 used social media to make a purchase. During the second quarter of that year, orders placed through social media had an average value of $79.01.
Users are increasingly turning to the Internet for video. Online video reaches 232 million viewers in the U.S., according to Statista. The number of video viewers on mobile devices has skyrocketed along with smartphone ownership, which Pew Research estimated was 81 percent in 2019.
With smartphones and tablets, people can stay connected almost anywhere they go with access to media and services available only from a desktop computer in the past. They have become "digital omnivores," using multiple devices to do research, make purchases, and socialize online. In response, the efforts of Internet companies to make media available for mobile platforms and to target advertising to mobile users have surged.
In the IAB's Internet advertising revenue report for the first half of 2019, PwC's David Silverman said "the digital advertising industry remains one of the strongest and most dynamic sectors of the U.S. economy. At nearly 17% growth from the prior half year the digital advertising industry is still far outpacing all other ad supported mediums, however the pace of growth is showing signs of slowing. As smartphone ownership nears saturation and social media matures, the industry is focused on new channels for growth such as connected TV, augmented reality and the vast potential of 5G."
Cloud computing, in which data is stored on servers as opposed to local devices, also is growing in popularity. Citing data from Valuates Reports, in October 2019, Bloomberg revealed that the global cloud computing market was projected to reach $285.3 billion by 2025, following compound annual growth of 29.2 percent. North America claimed more than half of the global market, mainly because of the United States. However, significant growth also was occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.
The industry also faces many challenges.
Use of personal information for advertising and marketing purposes and concerns about government access to private data shared in social media or stored online has generated some backlash directed against Facebook, Google, and similar companies. At the same time, awareness of security issues is growing. Viruses and other malware present constant threats to computers connected to the Internet, as do hackers who attack Web sites and individual users, and criminals who trick people into divulging sensitive information through phishing e-mails and other deceptions.
On other fronts, technology has made it easy to steal or pirate copyrighted films, television shows, music, video games, digital publications, and other content. Citing U.S. Chamber of Commerce figures, in mid-2019, IBC reported that online piracy cost the U.S. economy nearly $30 billion annually. Despite the efforts of copyright owners to fight piracy, the task remains difficult due to differences in copyright law around the world. Another concern is Internet censorship, the limiting of access to or suppression of information on the Internet, most often carried out by governments, especially those with repressive policies.
Perhaps even more troubling are increases in cyberbullying and cyberstalking, people using the Internet to abuse, stalk, or otherwise harass their victims while maintaining their anonymity. More than half of young people both experience and participate in cyberbullying, and some cases have resulted in suicide by the victim. Cyberstalking has led to real-world violence by stalkers who used the Internet to track their victims.
As the Internet continues to grow, the industry and its workforce will become broader and more varied. While no one can say with certainty where the Internet will take us, it is clear that more professionals will become involved in both its development and use.