When the worldwide web turned 25 last week, the Pew Internet Research Project rightly argued that it is deeply embedded in everyday life, and will become more so (1).
But Pew did not address the fact that the web may help destroy the very fabric of our life on Earth, due to the carbon-based sources of power it uses and the electronic waste that is left behind by its discarded gadgetry. We have dedicated this monthly column to summarizing and explaining such risks. They are especially important now, because use of the internet is expected to treble by 2017.
But there is some good news. For even as the web has grown up, so, it seems, have some leading firms associated with it. Greenpeace just released a valuable report on major companies that are trying to green the internet (2). It continues the organization’s longstanding contribution to rational debate about the environment as opposed to the hectoring of climate-change deniers, enabling a discussion founded on solid evidence rather than shrill hysteria.
There are encouraging signs among the report’s findings about diminishing the drain on the environment caused by data centers or server farms, those massive, hungry powerhouses that sprawl across the country and the world and are engaged each time you stream a TV show or use a search engine.
Here’s Greenpeace’s April 2014 take:
That all looks rather positive, doesn’t it? But other leaders in these areas have declined to reform themselves, either in terms of carbon footprints or transparency. Amazon Web Services, a crucial player in the computing cloud that powers Pinterest, Netflix, Spotify, and Tumblr, "remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies in the sector," alongside Twitter and Oracle. And it won’t reveal how much energy it uses, or the sources of all that power.
So it’s a case of good news/bad news. The fact that this is a patchy story, and one illustrated by a naming and shaming chart, shows how partial the influence of civil society can be, absent a robustly enforced legislative framework.
We need laws in place and regulators in office that prevent the use of coal-fired energy to power the cloud. This shouldn’t be one more instance of complaining to corporations in the hope that they feel embarrassed if they don’t conduct themselves responsibly. We need the executive arm of government to get real about our crisis.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report came out the same week as Greenpeace’s (3). Its message is clear: there simply isn’t time for the niceties of naming and shaming. Environmental criminals need to be jailed and their assets turned over to the public if they won’t face the facts—including the likely if yet unproven ones.
US civil society frequently operates like a school—reports that identify naughty companies as corporate reprobates scold them as if they were children. That can have some effect. Apple, for example, was clearly influenced by condemnation of its environmental impact and exposés of its human rights violations during subcontracted assembly of the company’s gadgets.
But Apple’s monumental profits have still not been fairly shared with the workers whose labor creates them, and who continue to suffer occupational health and safety risks on the production line (4).
This skewed wealth has implications in the US, as well. Consider the travel lives of Silicon Valley’s privileged elite, who ride to and from work in private mass transit—a very public sign of inequality. Watching on are conventional northern California commuters, who suffer a starved public transportation system while looking on at the riches that propel their neighbors between home and office (5).
It’s four years since Wired magazine, the playbook for devoted cybertarians, declared the web to have died due to the prominence of tablet and phone applications and the increased centralization of power in companies that were resembling old communications giants (6).
Celebrations of the infant’s 25th birthday suggest otherwise. But Wired’s warnings are valuable. They show us that even true believers can discern the distorting force of corporate capital diminishing the freedoms associated with this remarkable development of the past quarter century. The evidence isn’t merely there in oligopolistic patterns of ownership and control. It’s there, too, in the way that firms comport themselves, as employers and polluters. Time’s up.