A black and white image of a data centre in North Holland
Credit: Julia Rone

Data centre construction in North Holland has revealed the importance of meaningful participation in decision-making on digital policy at various levels of government, writes Julia Rone

On a vast green field in the province of North Holland, a flock of sheep is quietly grazing in front of a windmill farm. The first windmill in the region was jokingly called by locals “The Civil Servant” since it often didn’t work.

But these days are in the past now. Windmills – slender, tall and efficient – are quietly working in the background of what was once a bucolic agricultural landscape.

North Holland landscape
North Holland landscape | Credit: Julia Rone

Much of the land here is known as ‘polders’, that is land that local farmers managed to conquer back from the sea. Here, these vast polders are increasingly becoming the terrain of industrial projects coupling renewable energy and data centres.

The Industrial Zone – Agriport – known for its big greenhouses,  has in recent years also accommodated big data centres of Microsoft and Google that dramatically transform the local landscape. In North Holland, we see the harsh reality of digital infrastructure: bulky, warehouse style structures that are needed to maintain the cloud.

In a recent article published in “New Media & Society”, I explored how local people from the region of North Holland have reacted to the current expansion of data centres in their region.

From local councillors to activist groups such as “Red de Wieringermeer” and “Data Non Grata” – locals have increasingly opposed the further construction of data centres on various grounds.

A key concern has been the vast electricity demand of data centres – an argument that becomes especially relevant in light of the current energy crisis in Europe. But citizens have been worried also about the water consumption of data centres – again a topic that is exacerbated by the droughts over the past few years caused by the climate crisis.

Still, what I found in my research is that the biggest concern has been actually the lack of democratic process. Citizens often felt that their local executives conducted deals with multinational corporations behind their back, with little opportunity for participation or constructive input.

Rather than opposing data centres per se, citizens wanted to have a say in how and where they are built.

The closing of opportunity for meaningful participation led to bottom-up protests and a general politicization of data centre construction through local and national media, court cases and finally, the intervention of the Dutch Senate, which demanded a national strategy on data centres.

Democratising Digital Sovereignty

This case puts in a different perspective recent debates on digital sovereignty, defined as a “form of legitimate, controlling authority over – in the digital context – data, software, standards, services, and other digital infrastructure”. What the citizens of North Holland showed clearly is the importance of acknowledging the popular democratic dimension of digital sovereignty:  the ability of people to have a say in decisions on digital policy and infrastructure.

Rather than romanticising the local level per se, I argue that what matters is not only where sovereignty lies but also how it is exercised.

Affronts to democracy can happen both at the national and the local level. Therefore, what is needed is a just and inclusive process of participating in decision-making on digital policy at various levels of government.

“Decision making over data centre construction in the Netherlands is now made in public: it has become a matter of democratic politics.”

“Digital sovereignty”, thus, is not just a policy buzz-word to be imposed on people from above. To the contrary, resistance to data centres in North Holland has shown that digital sovereignty can be thought of also as the very embodied everyday political action of citizens having their say about the digital infrastructure that affects their lives, lands, and their ability to use water and electricity.

The case study I explore aims to complement existing research on contestation of data centres in Ireland, Chile and beyond. But what is specific about the Netherlands is that conflict has spilled over from the local level to the national, attracting wide-spread public attention, and uniting political actors across ideological divides. The Green-Left and farmers alike have found reasons to oppose data centres.

In short, decision making over data centre construction in the Netherlands is now made in public: it has become a matter of democratic politics. It is precisely this respect for democratic mechanisms and procedures, no matter how messy they are, that can guarantee popular sovereignty over the digital and avoid the current collusion between private corporations and public executives that has marked so much of digital policy.

The shape of the cloud should be citizens’ to decide.

Read Julia’s recent academic publication: The shape of the cloud: Contesting date centre construction in North Holland