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Big Tech’s dirty secret: How Big Tech’s toxic business model undermines action against climate change

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Alegre, Susie. 2022. “Big Tech’s Dirty Secret: How Big Tech’s Toxic Business Model Undermines Action against Climate Change.” London, United Kingdom: Global Action Plan.

This paper should serve as a wake-up call to the climate movement. While there is much good work underway to expose and challenge climate mis- and disinformation online, addressing Big Tech’s multidimensional climate problem requires climate activists to turn their attention to the toxic business model that lies beneath: the twin pillars of algorithmic recommender systems and surveillance advertising. Big Tech billionaires are the oil barons of the 21st century and their impact on climate change is no less destructive. Huge emissions from massive data centres are just the tip of the iceberg. Emissions from surveillance-based online advertising are immense, growing and inherently wasteful. The pollution of the online information environment makes it impossible to focus minds on clear, comprehensive and coherent action to tackle climate change. And the Big Tech business model tilts the political playing field around the world in ways that pose a direct threat to environmental and climate action through democratic capture, surveillance and lobbying power. These issues in isolation are all hugely problematic. Taken together, they expose Big Tech as a foundational blocker to meaningful climate action. Big Tech is fuelling climate change systematically, by: • Driving emissions: The ICT sector produces an estimated 2-3.9% of worldwide emissions – more than global aviation fuel emissions. Emissions from data centres are vast and growing fast, making decarbonisation harder, chasing an ever-vanishing horizon of electricity use. Much of this growth is driven by developments in artificial intelligence, blockchain and the Internet of Things that require more and more energy-hungry data processing.
• Driving consumerism: Big Tech’s data-based business model is entirely reliant on online surveillance advertising (ad tech) that operates by algorithmically profiling and targeting users – monitoring, processing and predicting our online lives to persuade us to buy more stuff. • Surveillance advertising is extremely energy intensive – an estimated 1% of total energy consumption on this planet is used in the process of serving online ads. The nature of the auction system behind these ads means that the vast majority of this 1% is effectively pointless – wasted energy that leads to zero ads being placed. The effect of the ads that are seen is profound: advertising now adds an estimated 32% to the carbon footprint of every person in the UK. • Driving division: the same algorithms that profile and target users with adverts are driving division, spreading climate misinformation and disinformation, deepening climate denial and creating conditions that increasingly threaten democracy itself – something that is incompatible with a fair, ambitious climate policy. When trust, compassion and clarity have never been more needed, Big Tech amplifies climate disinformation and makes it harder to maintain momentum for climate action.
• Driving out democracy: Around the world, the power of targeted advertising and misinformation on social media is being harnessed by political campaigns in ways that pose a serious threat to the climate agenda. Big Tech’s lobbying power now outstrips the oil and gas sector making it a key player in setting global policy, including policies that have a direct impact on climate change. As campaigners digest the outcomes of COP27, they need to recognise that, until properly confronted, Big Tech’s toxic business model presents a systemic, digital roadblock to effective climate action.

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