Groups opposing the construction of polluting and water-intensive data centres are emerging in different regions. These local activists are laying bare Big Tech’s profoundly problematic community and environmental record, argues Sebastián Lehuedé, University of Cambridge. This post (also available in Spanish here) is inspired by a meeting in September of environmental activists and concerned researchers based in Europe and the Americas, who discussed the goals and challenges of grassroots groups opposing the construction of data centres. ‘Data Territories’ was hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge and funded by the Alan Turing Institute. Sebastián served as a moderator along with Hunter Vaughan: both have conducted research on digital technologies and the environment.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other technologies that use vast amounts of data are often cast as tools for alleviating the climate crisis. As their advocates argue, ‘AI can help us fight climate change by reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency, and increasing the use of renewable energy sources’. Some in the private sector champion ‘AI for the planet’, and the UN has followed suit by claiming that ‘AI is saving the world’.
Yet, such enthusiastic claims contrast with the experience of communities across the world whose environment and livelihood are being threatened by the infrastructure required to make AI work. Transmitting and processing increasingly vast volumes of data require a considerable amount of energy. According to estimates, data centres consume around 1-2% of the global electricity demand. There is less available information when it comes to water usage, but as an illustration, Google self-reported a rise from 11.4 billion litres of water usage in 2017 to 15.8 in 2018. It is important to note that data centres represent only a node in the AI lifecycle, which also encompasses large-scale mineral extraction, accumulation of e-waste, and other polluting practices.
Data Centre Activism in Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands
The Data Territories meeting brought together groups that had not had the chance to talk to people facing similar struggles in different regions. Three socioenvironmental activist groups shared their experiences of struggle, mainly against Google, Microsoft and Amazon data centres.
- Intense water usage in Cerrillos, Chile
Pamela Ramírez shared her experience of community resistance against the construction of a Google data centre in Cerrillos, an industrial and residential area in Santiago, Chile. One of the main concerns of the local community was water usage, which would amount to 169 litres per second in an area facing a mega drought for years. In a local referendum in 2019, the community voted against the data centre; more recently, Google announced that it would employ a less water-intensive cooling system. As Paz Peña from the Latin American Institute of Terraformation explained, a group in Quilicura, another neighbourhood in Santiago, is currently taking similar action in light of a data centre project recently announced by Microsoft.
Poster by Pamela Ramírez that reads: ‘Danger. No Data Centre. Data theft’.
- Data centres in Ireland forecast to use over one quarter of the country’s electricity supply by 2028
In the case of Ireland, Dylan Murphy introduced the Press Pause on Data Centres campaign carried out by Not Here Not Anywhere (NHNA). Data centres are expected to use 27% of Ireland’s electricity by 2028. After carrying out protests, petitions and other actions, NHNA had a partial victory when the national utilities regulator announced a limitation on data centres in the Dublin region. Murphy argued that the construction of data centres needs to adhere to democratic standards so that they could benefit communities rather than powerful companies, and to do so in a sustainable way.
Graphic part of NHNA’s campaign.
- Agriculture protection in Netherlands
Jan Meijles is a member of Save the Wieringermeer, a group of citizens in the Netherlands opposing the construction of two Microsoft data centres in their polder. Meijles explained that this group’s main goal has been to protect the open agriculture taking place in that region, as well as the green landscapes which are very much appreciated by the local farmers and citizens. Excessive water and renewable energy usage, water pollution and the release of heat to the air form part of their concerns.
‘More Data Centres? No!’ reads the banner in this photo.
This banner was placed at the entrance of the former house of the municipality of the Wieringermeer.
Photo courtesy of Red de Wieringermeer.
A challenge for data centre activism has been the lack of transparency and accountability from the side of Big Tech companies. In Chile, the lack of publicity regarding Google’s project made the local community activate the available legal participatory mechanisms relatively late. In Ireland, the lack of data regarding data centres has made it difficult to count on solid national-level data. In the Netherlands, research showed that chemicals stemming from data centres could lead to soil pollution, a fact that had been denied by companies behind these projects.
Envisioning A Different Future
Besides data centre activists, Data Territories also hosted academic researchers investigating the politics of data infrastructure. These researchers concurred with the activists in many of their points, and also highlighted the importance of imagining new forms of activism and alternative futures.
For Paola Ricaurte (Tecnológico de Monterrey), protests are crucial but need to be accompanied with alternative proposals. For example, the development of micro data centres can activate a type of digital citizenship different from the one promoted by Big Tech. As Julia Rone (MCTD, University of Cambridge) argued, there is a dire need for regulatory and policy initiatives capable of challenging the status quo and coming up with viable ant.
Mél Hogan (University of Calgary) argued that data centre activism also needs to consider ways to engage nature in its fight. For example, ‘hunger stones’ resurfacing in Europe contain messages engraved centuries ago that act as reminders of previous environmental crises. Hogan also highlighted the role of arts-based activism in opening alternative futures.
Carrying out creative forms of activism can be even more relevant when considering the dystopian future depicted by Patrick Brodie (University College Dublin). For Brodie, partnerships already taking place between technology companies and energy suppliers can give rise to close circuits in which energy is granted for data centres but not for the people. If such a potential integration occurs, he said, we should not be surprised to see Amazon Wind or Amazon Grid in the future.
Solidarity Against Big Tech
The rise of grassroots groups in Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands is drawing attention to the concrete impact of data technologies such as AI on communities and the environment. While Big Tech companies introduce themselves as ‘green’, their actual behaviour is transforming them into significant contributors to the climate crisis.
Data centre activism shares some of the goals of other groups such as the digital rights movement and technology companies’ unions. Perhaps, the key for democratising technology lies in the capacity of these groups to unite their forces in solidarity against a common adversary: a handful of increasingly powerful and rich technology companies undermining privacy, democracy and the environment at a planetary scale.
This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Featured image: Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash