The Internet giants may be cleaning up their energy act, but Peter Judge asks how deep is their care for the planet
Greenpeace has thirty activists behind bars in Russia for protesting against Arctic drilling, but it still found time last week for a cosy San Francisco press conference with its occassional opponents, tech giants Google, Facebook and Apple.
The Internet firms were praised for their actions to fight the same issue the Greenpeace activists were raising: global warming. But the San Francisco event also exposed how narrow the tech giants’ interest in climate is.
Google, Facebook, Apple, Rackspace, Yahoo and a few others gathered to talk about their use of renewable energy, convened and congratulated by Greenpeace. The timing was good – Google has just invested in solar energy generation (helping a venture firm buy plants from Sharp’s Recurrent subsidiary), while Facebook is building data centtrs in Sweden and Iowa that feed on renewable energy.
As Greenpeace’s Gary Cook said at the event (reported by DataCenterDynamics), the point is that the big buying power of the cloud giants pushes utilities to up their game on renewables and – hopefully – decreases everyone’s dependence on fossil fuels.
It doesn’t sound as if Microsoft was there – but it has just made a Google-like move and invested in renewable energy for its Texas data centre.
Meanwhile, the Greenpeace activists were standing trial for “hooliganism” because of a peaceful protest against drilling for oil in the Arctic. Leaving fossil fuel in the ground is the best way to reduce global warming, environmentalists say. And Russia’s action against the activists has been brutal and out of proportion.
Drilling in the the Arctic would mess up an area which is still largely unspoiled – apart from the fact that its ice is disappearing because of fossil fuel use elsewhere. That’s a pungent irony which drives the emotion of Greenpeace’s action: global warming removes the ice and makes the drilling possible, pushing climate change furter.
Not so smart ALEC
That story was a long way from San Francisco, but politics did emerge there – and embarrassed the cloud giants more than a little. A question was raised, and brushed aside, about Facebook and Google’s membership of ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council.
To a Brit, ALEC is a pretty weird concept. It’s a part of the US government process which looks as strange as our Lord Privy Seal must seem to a Yank. Apparently, a lot of big companies pay ALEC lots of money and it actually writes draft laws for the government to consider. Lobbying takes place all over, but that’s a pretty darn up-front way of doing it. You pay your money, and you have a pretty good shot at writing your own laws.
A question in San Francisco suggested that Google and Facebook should get out of ALEC because it’s basically a right-wing libertarian body, which has – apparently – promoted legislation to combat the teaching of climate change in schools. It is also blamed for the infamous “Stand Your Ground” laws which protected Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman.
Google and Facebook’s ALEC membership came out in connection with ALEC’s “anti-SLAPP” proposal, which is intended to prevent big businesses using unjustified lawsuits to close down critical comments. In a so-called “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP), a giant company typically sues a member of the public for defamation. The company does not expect to win, but to intimidate the people involved and stifle criticism – the British example being the McLibel trial which backfired against McDonalds.
Unusually for ALEC, its opposition to SLAPPs might seem to run against the interests of big business, but SLAPPs are are criticised for stifling free speech. Google and Facebook oppose them because they could seriously limit the user-generated content on which both depend.
But I’m not so sure that the cloud gorillas’ support for ALEC is an anomaly. They’re inherently anti-government – not just in their reluctance to pay any tax if they can help it – and ALEC is a good forum for bullying the elected representatives.
Google and Facebook are self-centred. That’s their only motivation for standing with Greenpeace on reducing energy use. In wider politics, they are happier in ALEC than they would be taking a stand for other issues like, say, those Greenpeace activists facing prison for an environmental protest.
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