Encouraging Better Policymaking and Meaningful Participation around Data Centres

 

Consultation response on the European Commission’s White Paper: “How to master Europe’s digital infrastructure needs?”

 

Submission to the European Commission by the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, University of Cambridge.

 

Authors: Thomas Lacy, Dr Julia Rone, Dr Ann Kristin Glenster, Professor Gina Neff

 

28 June 2024

 

Summary of submission

 

We welcome this opportunity to respond to the European Commission’s White Paper: “How to master Europe’s digital infrastructure needs?” on challenges with future rollout of connectivity networks across a range of pillars, including sustainability.[1]

 

This submission is made by the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy (MCTD), an independent team of academic researchers at the University of Cambridge who are radically rethinking the power relationships between digital technologies, society, and our planet.

 

This submission focuses specifically on data centres and is based on an evidence-gathering workshop held at the University of Cambridge on 14 June 2024 with 20 academics and activists with experience from across the EU and beyond. Activists and researchers shared experiences from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Spain.

 

The workshop revealed a scarcity of evidence on the effect of data centres on sustainability across Europe. It was believed that this absence of information and a lack of robust assessments of the consequences of the expansion of data centres could have a deleterious effect on local communities, the economy, and the environment for generations to come, and that the lack of data could hamper good policymaking.

 

Workshop participants acknowledge the assumption set forth in the White Paper in favour of digital infrastructure development in Europe to encourage economic growth and digital uptake. This submission does not argue against the deployment of data centres outright, but that better policies around data, transparency, and civic participation are needed for good policymaking.

 

Workshop participants felt it was imperative that the Commission consider four areas in relation to data centres and sustainability as it develops the plans for a digital Europe:

 

      Transparency: The Commission should establish mandatory reporting standards and impact assessments for data centres, mandating that companies report accurate information to national authorities and the public.

 

      Research, Collaboration and Digital Literacy: The Commission is encouraged to strengthen the conditions for research and collaboration on data centres, and work to increase digital literacy across all sectors of society.

 

      Financial Incentives: The Commission should consider incentives to promote good and sustainable data centre practices and measures that offer less extractive models for communities in the vicinity of data centres.

 

      National Moratoria and EU-wide Law: The Commission should continue to be open to Member States and local authorities using temporary moratoria to halt the construction of data centres, and is urged to develop an ambition for a world-leading sustainable regime for data centres.

 

  1. Transparency

 

The Commission should establish mandatory reporting standards and impact assessments for data centres, mandating that companies report accurate information to national authorities and the public.

 

Workshop participants urged the Commission to develop robust mandatory transparency and reporting criteria for the approval for building, and the running of, data centres.

 

Workshop participants were particularly concerned about the lack of rudimentary information available about data centres, such as their location, ownership structure, and environmental impacts including waste, water use, and energy consumption.[2] In local communities, participants found conflicting information or a lack of information which undermined the rigour of policymaking and governmental decision-making.

 

As an urgent step for civic participation in decision-making regarding data centres, workshop participants urged the Commission to institute mandatory detailed technical reporting standards for the planning, deployment, and running of data centres. This information should be made available to the public at no cost.

 

This information should also be shared between Member States to provide the Union and its people with an accurate understanding of the number and nature of data centres across Europe.

 

The lack of official statistics on the energy and water use of data centres is particularly concerning. The EU and individual Member States will only be able to meet their climate change targets if developers, local governments, and operating companies are required to be transparent with how much energy and water data centres are using, especially as the number of data centres continues to grow.[3]

 

Additionally, binding legal transparency standards should be adopted to ensure that any data provided is accurate, with appropriate and meaningful enforcement mechanisms exercised by national and local authorities. National and local authorities should be encouraged to draw on transparency requirements in existing law to strengthen mandatory transparency requirements for data centres.

 

The absence of information is also underpinned by a lack of shared terminology, which further hampers good decision-making regarding the impact of data centres on sustainability. To this end, the Commission should adopt a definition of data centres to be used across policymaking and legislation across the Union.[4]

 

It is also crucial that local communities become more involved in the planning process when it comes to assessing and improving new data centres. Repeatedly, workshop participants noted that local residents often do not know who to address with their concerns regarding the impact of new data centres on their local environment.

 

Workshop participants urged the Commission to set up a central European information hub with all information pertaining to data centres on the Union-wide, national, and local level, and to make this hub available to citizens across the Member States. The importance of early information dissemination was emphasised and the need for robust digital literacy in terms of what the numbers mean for sustainability.

 

  1. Research, Collaboration, and Digital Literacy

 

The Commission is encouraged to strengthen the conditions for research and collaboration on data centres, and work to increase digital literacy across all sectors of society.

 

Workshop participants identified how crucial research is for informing civil society and policymakers about the impact and opportunities of data centres. The Commission is encouraged to strengthen the conditions for research on data centres, especially by instituting mandatory transparency requirements as outlined above and by securing researchers’ access to the data.

 

Workshop participants also urged the Commission to develop mechanisms and spaces for collaboration between researchers and civic collaborators. This collaboration is particularly important for civic participation in decision-making and to combat misinformation and disinformation about data centres and sustainability. Participants were concerned with ‘green-washing’ narratives; impacts of data centres on the locality; and false, inaccurate, or incomplete statistics being used by companies and local politicians with misleading or inadequate assumptions about the severity of environmental impact or the potential for local economic growth.

 

Throughout the workshop, the theme of false narratives was repeated in every example or scenario, demonstrating the scale of the problem. Workshop participants felt that it was too easy for misleading narratives to develop unchallenged around data centres. Educational resources, fact sheets, digital literacy programmes, transparency provisions, and information sharing will be key to ensure the integrity of the civic and political discussion on data centres.

 

Increased digital literacy is urgently needed across all sectors of society, from politicians to local citizens. Work to remedy this should include training on the need, use, and impact of data centres, and especially the effect on the local environment, and also training in good digital practices, such as regular data deletion.

 

The Commission should also develop mechanisms to ensure that research and findings from citizen activism and collaboration feeds into the Commission’s own assessment and decision-making processes.

 

  1. Financial Incentives for Good Data Centre Practices

 

The Commission should consider incentives to promote good and sustainable data centre practices and measures that offer less extractive models for communities in the vicinity of data centres.

 

Workshop participants noted that many issues around sustainability in data centres stem from poor data centre practices. Thus, participants would urge the Commission to consider financial and other incentives that would promote good and sustainable data centre practices, including the need for radical reduction in ‘data waste’.

 

Voluntary codes such as the Code of Conduct for Data Centres[5] could form the basis of statutory minimum standards, or of schemes offering tax cuts, development grants, or a greater chance of achieving planning permission if certain sustainability standards are met. Financial incentives should also be considered to encourage the use of green and renewable electricity sources by data centres and discourage the use of fossil fuels, which could be deployed alongside regulatory measures like energy caps.

 

In addition, the Commission should find means to incentivise the assessment of the carbon footprint of softwares to identify energy-intensive digital processes and the use of more environmentally efficient ones, as well as the automatic deletion of obsolete ‘dark data’ and ‘rot data’. The Commission should nonetheless be wary that increasing data centre efficiency is only part of the picture, and measures should not be considered a success if the overall resource use of the sector grows despite efficiencies (for instance because the size of the sector grows faster than efficiencies are realised).

 

Finally, many data centres have proven to be extractive in local economies: cited examples ranged from unrestricted water use while drought-related restrictions had been imposed on communities and businesses, to use of wind power which could have been used to power whole local villages. Workshop participants also raised concerns about existing power purchase agreements, which allow companies to offset emissions by investing in renewable energy in other, cheaper localities rather than in the communities where data centres are built. The Commission should consider how it can support incentive measures that offer less extractive models for communities in the vicinity of data centres.

 

  1. National Moratoria and EU-wide Law

 

The Commission should continue to be open to Member States and local authorities using temporary moratoria to halt the construction of data centres, and is urged to develop an ambition for a world-leading sustainable regime for data centres.

 

Workshop participants discussed whether moratoria on new data centres (of the kind seen in Ireland and the Netherlands) represented an appropriate measure to mitigate the negative impacts on sustainability. For some participants, moratoria were desirable because they perceived the impact of data centres to have an overall significant, and in some instances detrimental, effect on their local communities and the environment. For other participants, moratoria were not considered the right solution as in these cases, it was not a question of whether to have data centres, but rather how to make these sustainable.

 

The consensus reached in the workshop was to encourage the Commission to continue to be open to Member States and local authorities using temporary moratoria to halt the construction of data centres in their area. National and regional governments are best placed to decide when local factors might necessitate a moratorium.

 

There was some discussion about the ambition the EU should have to engage in global standard-setting through its legislative mechanisms. A previous example of the export of a ‘gold standard’ was the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on data protection, which has been adopted and influenced data protection regimes around the world.[6]

 

Workshop participants urged the Commission to develop an ambition for a world-leading sustainable regime for data centres, which could be transposed to the national level. The Commission should resist pressure from industry to forego regulation due to fears of stifling innovation: workshop participants expressed concern about the political narrative that data centres will go elsewhere if environmental standards are imposed. The Commission has a central role to play in strengthening sustainable policies across the Union.

 

Conclusion

 

Overall, the workshop revealed that the debates around data centres in the EU needs more transparency and meaningful opportunities for civic participation in decision making concerning data centres.

 

Data centres play an increasingly important role in Europe’s overall digital infrastructure. Reliable data, good centre management practices, and good opportunities for participation are vital to maintaining public trust, making good policy, and supporting digital interactions necessary for contemporary social and cultural life.[7] The Commission has a central role to play in setting minimum standards for reporting and participation, and in developing guidance and resources for use on national and local levels. If implemented correctly, responsible regulation now will help Europe develop new digital infrastructures at pace and seize the opportunities of the digital age while supporting citizens, economic growth and broader sustainability goals.



[1] Commission, “How to master Europe’s digital infrastructure needs?” (white paper), 21 February 2024, https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/white-paper-how-master-europes-digital-infrastructure-needs [accessed 24 June 2024].

[2] Existing studies often rely on limited public data, for example, European Commission Joint Research Centre, ‘Energy Consumption in Data Centres and Broadband Communication Networks in the EU’, 16.02.2024 https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC135926 [accessed 19 June 2024].

[3] For example, the International Energy Agency estimates the global electricity demand from data centres could double towards 2026: International Energy Agency, ‘Electricity 2024: Analysis and Forecast to 2026’, 24.01.2024, p. 31 https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/18f3ed24-4b26-4c83-a3d2-8a1be51c8cc8/Electricity2024-Analysisandforecastto2026.pdf [accessed 25 June 2024].

[4] Industry sorts data centres into different categories, such as ‘hyperscale’, ‘co-location’, ‘edge’, and so on. Different sorts of centres may have different sustainability and community impacts, and also represent different opportunities. See for example, Nexus, ‘Beginner’s guide to different types of data centres’, https://www.nexcess.net/blog/types-of-data-centers [accessed 19 June 2024].

[5] The EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres, https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/jrc-news-and-updates/eu-code-conduct-data-centres-towards-more-innovative-sustainable-and-secure-data-centre-facilities-2023-09-05_en [Accessed 20 June 2024].

[6] Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC (General Data Protection Regulation) (Text with EEA relevance), OJ L 119.

[7] Gina Neff and Jeremy Hughes, ‘2024 Lives online: digital social infrastructures’, British Academy, May 2024, https://pure.strath.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/213881758/Social-and-cultural-infrastructure-for-people-and-policy.pdf#page=109 [accessed 25 June 2024].