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The face of the Net is a-changin'

Long the playground of the young, affluent and geeky, the Internet is now attracting a more diverse crowd, Jupiter Media Metrix says, including people over 50.

The Internet, long the domain of the young, affluent and technologically savvy, is becoming host to a more diverse mix of people that increasingly resembles the U.S. population, according to a new forecast.

Older and less affluent people will constitute a greater portion of the American online shopping population in five years than they do today, according to Jupiter Media Metrix.

By 2006, the majority of online shoppers in the United States are likely to be over the age of 35, and one-third will be 50 or older, Jupiter said. By comparison, only 16 percent of the online shopping population is 50 or older today.

The household income of the average online shopper will drop from more than $70,000 in 2001 to less than $65,000 in five years, according to the forecast. The number of U.S. online shoppers will double, from 66 million today to 132 million, in that time, but the ratio of female to male shoppers, which is nearly equal today, will remain the same.

"A lot of folks on the left thought (the digital divide) would be the new civil liberties issue of the 21st century, but it didn't happen," said Sonia Arrison, director of the Center for Technology Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.

"You look at the numbers and there really isn't that much of a digital divide anymore, and it's closed so quickly," said Arrison, whose public policy analysis firm advocates limiting government regulation of business.

Access to the Internet, either through home, work, school or the library, spread to 50 million people between 1996 and 2000--many times faster than the spread of television, radio and the PC when they were introduced, Arrison said.

Internet surfers are also likely to live in an increasingly diverse number of U.S. cities and regions. The number of people surfing the Web from home grew faster last year in cities like Pittsburgh and Phoenix than in high-tech centers like San Francisco, Seattle and New York, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.