climate emergency opinion

Add blocking and your carbon footprint

We have seen some fresh interest in the carbon foot print of our online activities recently. From the server farms that stream the latest episode of whatever “must-see” <insert streaming service name here>-exclusive series, to the general power consumption of online platforms, social media or otherwise, and the digital infrastructure they rely on; All of it consumes electricity. And when this electricity comes from fossil fuel dominant electricity grids, it, your online entertainment that is, inevitably adds to the heating of our planet.

That said, many large data center operators have started to procure low carbon electricity through power purchase agreements from renewable sources. Additionally, newer generations of hardware still tend to become more efficient in terms of computations per watt. So there is at least some cause for cautious optimism.

Interestingly however, one aspect of our online lives seems to receive curiously little attention from the press. Online advertising and the energy wasted in its name. This lack of attention may well have to do with the fact that current online business models for traditional publishers, like news papers and next-gen publishers like Facebook, are heavily reliant on stalking and then serving targeted advertising content to their users.

What makes online advertising particularly interesting from the perspective of power consumption and CO2 emissions is that it does not simply rely on a server infrastructure to serve the adds for generating its emissions. The other half, and likely rather substantial impact, of this industry happens in the users’ homes.

Unlike video streaming, which usually keeps one player app busy, online advertising relies on the execution of countless scripts for each open browser tab to serve you those targeted adds on top of the back end infrastructure housed in data centers. These scripts consume extra power by generating often substantial computational loads on your computer at home.

If you aren’t already running an add blocker, install uBlock Origin and the EFF’s Privacy Badger (while you are at it you might as well ad a cookie auto delete plugin of your choice) in Firefox. Enable them with their defaults. Then look at the change in battery life you are getting from your laptop. If you are anything like me and frequently have several dozens of tabs open in multiple browser windows, you might easily sea your power consumption drop by 50% to 70%. This represents a substantial savings potential, especially if deployed at scale, for example across an entire organization.

As an added bonus you’ll also get extra protection from malicious adds that still sneak their way onto various advertising networks and are designed to hijack your browser and, in the worst case, compromise your entire machine.

Yes there is an ongoing campaign against add blockers, in some cases even carried by browser makers with a conflict of interest, and there are ethical arguments against consuming add free publisher content. But at the same time, for as long as online advertising networks insist on bombarding us with complex bloated tracking code, malicious code, and excessively media rich auto playing adds, we ought to carefully consider whether we really want to waste electricity and increase our client’s attack surface to prop up the business model of an industry that has repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of self regulation.

Marketing by definition has often a conflicted relationship with ethical behavior and choices, so to wait for this industry to “fix” itself and become more environmentally friendly seems futile. Maybe I am overly pessimistic?

Thus, we as users will have to drive change, and add-bockers are one powerful tool at our disposal to force this change.

There are alternatives already, from “in video” sponsorship and patronage on youtube, to simpler content specific adds, to micro-payments for content, that could all help reduce the environmental impact and secure funding for content creators. Whether you are a content creator or consumer, you have options, make use of them.

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