It’s easy to think of the internet as something immaterial that saves energy. E-mail instead of letters. Streams instead of plastics. No transportation costs… We easily forget or ignore how many wires and servers and how much electricity and air waves is required to do these things. In fact, we don’t even really know.
This long read in Low Tech Magazine gives an overview of how much energy the internet uses. In short, it argues that the internet is not only its backbone infrastructure, but also the smartyphones and the wi-fi connections and other stuff at the user-end of the spectrum. These things considered, the internet uses 8% of the global electricity production according to their estimate. That means that the internet requires nuclear energy to run; that the internet is not a sustainable technology.
While their estimate might be incorrect, we can be sure that the energy use of the internet is on the rise. Not because more people are getting connected, but because people in the rich parts of the world watch more HD-videos, use cloud services instead of their own computer powers, and use more wireless internet. Probably for highly crucial purposes. He he.
4G uses 23 times more energy than a wired connection and a streamed movie uses 30-78% more energy than watching a DVD. The article concludes that the internet needs a speed limit, because forces of technological progress and the rebound effect, aswell as freedom and commerce, will make the internet nuts.
Meanwhile, the EU recently voted “against” “net” “neutrality”. This has been discussed as a loss for the freedom of the internet. It’s rare to see someone who argues against net neutrality because that’s like arguing against freedom. But what are we talking about here, really? I know little about this topic, but the phrasing always put me off. Neutral? To me, technology is not and can never be neutral, so I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the discussion. Especially since it’s usually one-sided, atleast in the crowds I move in.
I found Martin Geddes who used to work high up in the techy hierarchies of British Telecom. Other than that I don’t know much about him. But he’s not afraid to speak out against what he sees as a nonsensical debate about net neutrality: The pile of literature on ‘net neutrality’ has been a waste of human effort and a loss of good wood pulp.
He argues that networks cannot be neutral and therefore cannot discriminate. With the way the internet works now, it’s chance that decides which packet arrive before the other. So it’s impossible to say whether it’s bad luck or discrimination; it’s impossible to say if it’s neutral or not.
I’m not sure what to make of this. Clearly it’s pretty bad if an internet provider gives a “fast lane” to Netflix while throttling the speed of the rest of the net. It’s also pretty terrible if internet providers can block sites and content. These are things that pro-net-neutrality people talk about. But that’s pretty much what’s going on already, right? More European countries are forcing ISPs to block domains. In Sweden we’re waiting for a court ruling on this in November. Platforms like Netflix use more bandwidth by offering more HD-blockbusters, therefore making the rest of the internet slower than it would be without Netflix.
In other words, Netflix means that online public services become less reliable. That’s something that libertarians and free market ideologues often miss when discussing the internet. Isn’t it important to make sure that important societal infrastructure on the internet works properly? If it is, then “net neutrality” is not what you want. You might want a special lane for societal infrastructure on ze information highway. Or you might want to build an internet where you can source problems and demand reliable broadband from the ISP. And not rely on chance. Or maybe just build your own mesh network or low-tech internet.
Freedom mongers will probably call you a communist for wanting a non-neutal network. Throw in some arguments about a speed limit to improve sustainability and help people get off their HD-addiction, and you should be good to go. Home.
(Obviously I’m not an expert at network technologies or energy consumption and I’m not a net activist so I’m sure I’ve gotten some things backwards. Comments appreciated!)