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How really to improve the internet's energy footprint

Published on 2018-12-07 code

The internet today uses more energy than global air travel. Recently, low-tech magazin has published a great article on how to build a low-energy website. But somehow I have the nagging feeling that they are approaching this issue from the wrong angle.

The topic of energy efficiency is not entirely new, but it has never really caught on. I guess that is mostly because it is a large overlap with the well established field of software performance. It is important to note, though, that there are cases where performance is not the same as energy efficiency, e.g. parallelization or improvements to "perceived performance".

An important heuristic about performance optimization is "premature optimization is the root of all evil". So we should understand what part of the internet uses so much energy so we can focus on it.

What you will usually read is that the internet uses 5.12kWh per GB. How much of this is used in the client, how much is used on the server, and how much is used on the way between? How much of it is dependent on traffic and how much is fixed? Unfortunately, many of these important details are still hard to come by.

But I can make an educated guess about which sites cause a lot of traffic, and I think this is what low-tech magazin gets wrong: They focus on newspapers and blogs, i.e. websites where the major content is text and everything else is decoration. But I believe a lot more traffic is caused by youtube videos, music streaming, cat images, or porn. In short: entertainment.

After realizing this, my first step was to install the youtube-video-quality firefox addon and select a low quality. But that can only be a first step. In the end I guess there is no alternative to reducing out consumption of entertainment products.