Fight spam, help the planet

Concerns over the environmental impact of information technology are not new; however, the data hunger of the last two decades has made such concerns much more prevalent – if not somewhat hysterical. As Google’s empire keeps sprawling, its environmental footrpint keeps growing – and, quite predictably, it becomes an easy target for environmentalists (and yet, ...

Concerns over the environmental impact of information technology are not new; however, the data hunger of the last two decades has made such concerns much more prevalent - if not somewhat hysterical. As Google's empire keeps sprawling, its environmental footrpint keeps growing - and, quite predictably, it becomes an easy target for environmentalists (and yet, I am still surprised that the company hasn't yet suffered more at their hands - perhaps, it was a very wise decision not to disclose the exact location of their data centers).

Concerns over the environmental impact of information technology are not new; however, the data hunger of the last two decades has made such concerns much more prevalent – if not somewhat hysterical. As Google’s empire keeps sprawling, its environmental footrpint keeps growing – and, quite predictably, it becomes an easy target for environmentalists (and yet, I am still surprised that the company hasn’t yet suffered more at their hands – perhaps, it was a very wise decision not to disclose the exact location of their data centers).

 

Quantifying the impact of Googles and Yahoos is also very tempting, if not always meaningful: I remember how a few months ago much of the media fell for a new Harvard study that linked Google searches to climate change (“two Google searches=boiling a kettle”); later, however, it turned out that the journalists covering the study inserted some calculations of their own – so much of the hype was due to their (rather unfortunate) involvement.

But a recent and widely discussed study about the environmental impact of spam offers an interesting perspective on the tiny and usually invisible activities – like sorting out emails into spam and non-spam – that, collectively, drain quite a lot of resources and, eventually, have a rather devastating impact on the environment. Quote from a Slashdot post that discusses the study:

“A new study entitled ‘The Carbon Footprint of Spam’ (PDF) published by ICF International and commissioned by McAfee claims that spam uses around 33 billion kilowatt hours of energy annually, which is approximately enough to power 2.4 million US homes (or roughly 3.1 million cars) for a year. They calculated that the average CO2 emission for a spam email is around 0.3 grams. Interestingly, the majority of energy usage (around 80%) comes from users viewing and deleting spam, and searching for legitimate emails within spam filters. They also claim that ‘An individual company can find that one fifth of the energy budget of its email system is wasted on spam.’ One of the report’s authors, Richi Jennings, writes on his blog that ‘spam filtering actually saves an incredible amount of energy.’ He continues, ‘Imagine if every inbox were protected by a state-of-the-art spam filter. We could save about 75% of the spam energy used today — 25 TWh per year; that’s like taking 2.3 million cars off the road.

From this perspective, Google’s superb anti-spam filters are actually doing us a lot of good by saving energy. Now, that’s a truly contrarian take on Google! But I think it points our analysis in the right direction: we can’t analyze Google’s true impact on the environment without considering the benefits that its services bring (i.e. using Google Talk instead of driving to a meeting). I wonder if anyone has already conducted such a study?

photo by JanetGalore/Flickr

Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at the Open Society Institute and sits on the board of OSI's Information Program. He writes the Net Effect blog on ForeignPolicy.com

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