Interview with Dr. Sebastián Lehuedé
The different grassroots groups are active locally and not part of a broader movement. What they have in common are their environmental concerns – specifically the data centers’ energy and water consumption. The management and processing of data requires vast amounts of energy. The data centers built in Ireland, one of the world’s main poles for this type of infrastructure, are expected to consume 27 percent of the entire country’s electricity by 2029. That’s quite a lot. Data centers increase the load on the electricity grid, consuming up to 2 percent of global electricity demand. With data centers becoming increasingly efficient, this might change. At the same time, though, more and more are being built. And then there is the issue of water consumption. Vast amounts of water are required to cool them, which is why data centers in Europe are usually built in colder areas like Nordic countries, where due to lower outside temperatures cooling down the server is easier. In 2019, however, Google planned on building a data center in central Chile, which is home to an increasingly arid Mediterranean climate. According to the first structural design, the Google data center’s cooling system required 169 liters per second, and that in an area where people have been struggling with droughts for years. The average data center uses as much water as three average-sized hospitals. There are also other issues, including air pollution. In the Netherlands, activists worried that the construction of a Microsoft data center would affect their agriculture and, beyond that, ruin the landscape.
Patrick Brodie from the University College Dublin thinks that new partnerships between Big Tech and renewable energy companies could lead to the exclusive use of renewable energy for data centers, meaning that ordinary citizens are then denied access to clean energy because of green data centers. In Santiago de Chile, people were uncertain about whether there would still be enough water for them with the Google data center being operated there. There were no reliable studies conducted beforehand to estimate the data center’s impact on the local environment and the local communities. In such a constellation, the shift toward sustainable energy becomes a social problem.
Primarily the Big Tech companies, of course, because they build data centers to profit from them. But we need the authorities to ensure that the Big Tech companies comply with regulatory standards. Alphabet, Meta and Microsoft all issue reports on their electricity and water use, but most of the time, those reports aren’t fact-checked. That’s why we need third-party actors who keep an eye on how Big Tech enterprises affect the environment and local communities. If this could be done on a global level, then perfect. The problem is that international organizations like UN agencies seem to be quite biased when it comes to the deployment of technologies like Artificial Intelligence. The UN sees AI as a potential solution to the climate crisis without taking into account that the use of AI itself produces carbon emissions that aggravate this very crisis.
In Chile, after years of sustained activism, the people of Cerrillos managed to negotiate with Google, after which the company decided to use a less water-intensive technology. That was a big achievement. But at the same time, lithium is being extracted in the north of Chile, which causes considerable harm. We need to take a general look at the entire AI lifecycle process to identify problems. But it is difficult to make an assessment because these companies are so opaque. They can’t even say where the minerals that they use to build their technologies come from – probably because they don’t know. Under which labor conditions do people assemble the device? How does the training of the algorithms work? Given that activists and scientists haven’t yet figured out the extent to which the production of digital technologies damages the environment, I would say that activists are rather pessimistic at the moment.
This is in line with Western Europe’s historical hypocrisy. Europe is infamous for defending values such as democracy at home while not showing too much concern about human rights in the rest of the world. There is this idea of green technologies, the question is: Who defines what is green? If you want to build electric cars, the flagship product of green technologies, you need to extract lithium. But indigenous communities in Chile are standing up against the extraction of lithium because the environmental and social harms are so staggering. If the environmental problem isn’t present on European ground, then it’s not surprising that the issue isn’t addressed in European legislation. To a large extent, the European lifestyle depends on the global exploitation of minerals and other resources, and digital technologies are no exception.
Not really. The Chilean activists in Cerrillos didn’t want to address Big Tech companies like that. This is partly a strategic decision because they thought that demanding water justice would be the most effective approach. By seeing Google just as an actor that demands lots of water, they didn’t have to get involved with privacy and other issues. They weren’t even aware of how problematic the situation is on a global level, which is one of the reasons we organized the Data Territories conference at the Centre of Governance and Human Rights in Cambridge. In the case of Santiago de Chile, the local population initially tended to be sympathetic with Google. Due to the successful PR work companies such as Google keep doing, people tend to think: “Oh, that’s great, we’ll get more innovation, and more jobs,” when the construction of a data center in their home area is announced. But through their experiences, I do think that digital rights activists are becoming more and more aware of the nature of these actors. And I’m optimistic that through the actions and the educational work of environmental activists, people will realize just how harmful the influence of their new Big Tech neighbors is. And then we can talk about alternative forms of organizing and alternative technologies. That hasn’t really happened yet, but it might in the future.