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How the tide turned on data centres in Europe
By Joseph BOYLE
Paris (AFP) Sept 14, 2022

Google, Meta face record fines in South Korea over privacy violations
Seoul (AFP) Sept 14, 2022 - South Korea has fined Google and Meta more than $71 million collectively for gathering users' personal information without consent for tailored ads, regulators said Wednesday, the country's highest-ever data protection fines.

Investigations into the two US tech giants found they had been "collecting and analysing" data on their users, and monitoring their use of websites and applications, the Personal Information Protection Commission said.

The data was used to "infer the users' interests or used for customised online advertisements", it said, adding that neither Google nor Meta had clearly informed South Korean users of this practice or obtained their consent in advance.

As a result, Google was fined 69.2 billion won ($49.7 million) and Meta 30.8 billion won ($22.1 million).

"It is the largest fine for the violation of the Personal Information Protection Act," the commission said in a statement.

Regulators said the majority of the users in South Korea -- 82 percent for Google and 98 percent for Meta -- had unknowingly allowed them to collect data on their online use.

"It can be said that the possibility and the risk of infringement of the rights of the users are high," the statement said.

Last year, South Korea fined Google nearly $180 million for abusing its dominance in the mobile operating systems and app markets, saying it was hampering market competition.

Giant US tech companies are regularly criticised for dominating markets by elbowing out rivals, with multiple governments globally seeking to rein them in.

The European Union has slammed Google with record antitrust penalties, and also gone after Apple and Microsoft.

Every time we make a call on Zoom, upload a document to the cloud or stream a video, our computers connect to vast warehouses filled with servers to store or access data.

Not so long ago, European countries were falling over each other to welcome the firms that run these warehouses, known as data centres or bit barns.

Wide-eyed politicians trumpeted investments and dreamt of creating global tech hubs.

But then the dream went sour.

The sheer amount of energy and water needed to power and cool these server farms shocked the public.

The industry sucked up 14 percent of Ireland's power last year, London warned home builders that power shortages caused by bit barns could affect new projects, and Amsterdam said it simply had no more room for the warehouses.

Then things got worse.

The war in Ukraine helped spark an energy crisis across the continent, leaving consumers facing rocketing bills and countries contemplating energy shortages.

"Data centres will be a target," critical blogger Dwayne Monroe told AFP, saying the focus would only grow if Europe cannot fix its energy crisis.

Grassroots campaigns and local opposition have already helped to halt projects this year by Amazon in France, Google in Luxembourg and Meta in the Netherlands.

The Irish government, while reaffirming support for the industry, put strict limits on new developments until 2028.

The data industry says it feels unfairly targeted, stressing its efforts to source green energy and arguing that outsourcing storage to bit barns has helped slash consumption.

- 'Veil of shadow' -

These arguments are playing out most spectacularly in Ireland.

Activists are campaigning on a broad range of topics and using local forums to push their case.

"They take up a huge amount of space but provide basically no employment," says Madeleine Johansson, a Dublin councillor for the People Before Profit party, which is campaigning on the issue.

Johansson recently had a motion passed in her council area banning the centres, sparking an almighty row with the national government that is yet to be resolved.

Dylan Murphy of Not Here, Not Anywhere, one of several climate groups pushing the issue in Ireland, has filed a motion in his local council in Fingal calling for companies to reveal the kind of information they are holding.

"There's a complete lack of transparency... about what data is actually being stored in these data centres," he said, calling it a "veil of shadow".

The data industry says revealing that information would be impossible.

Michael McCarthy of Cloud Infrastructure Ireland, a lobby group, said activists had lost the argument on sustainability and were now throwing everything at the wall.

"Data centres definitely are large energy users but they're part of a cohort of larger energy users," he said.

McCarthy and industry figures in other countries say the real problem is years of underinvestment in national energy infrastructure.

He also pointed out that the industry in Europe had pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030.

And there are still countries hankering to get data firms to locate there -- particularly Iceland and Norway.

- Questions over metaverse -

Against this backdrop, the tech industry continues to innovate new products that invariably require vast amounts of processing power and data storage.

Machine-learning tools, for example, are hugely energy hungry -- Google said earlier this year they accounted for between 10 and 15 percent of its total energy usage.

The metaverse, an emerging concept for a 3D internet championed by Facebook owner Meta, would also be hugely energy intensive.

Critical blogger Monroe reckons the metaverse will buckle under its own weight, partly because of its data requirements.

"The construction of the metaverse would require Facebook to build out a distribution of data centres that would rival what Amazon, Microsoft and Google have done for their clouds," he said.

Meta did not respond directly to questions about the metaverse but told AFP that it was "proud to build some of the most energy and water efficient data centres in the world".

As far as the carbon footprint of such innovation goes, energy experts interviewed by AFP said it would be difficult to assess.

The metaverse, for example, could help to reduce emissions in other areas by reducing the need for travel.

An energy official who did not want to be named questioned whether data centres were the best target for criticism when cryptocurrencies were so wasteful.

While data centres used about one percent of global energy output in 2020, cryptocurrency mining used about half that amount, according to the International Energy Agency.

McCarthy said those who opposed data centres needed to reckon with just how embedded they had become in everyday life, particularly since the coronavirus pandemic.

"They facilitate how we can work and live online, that's the reality of it," he said.

Europe's battle with Big Tech: billions in fines and tough laws
Luxembourg (AFP) Sept 14, 2022 - The European Union is on a mission to rein in US tech giants, which have been accused of tax avoidance, stifling competition, raking in billions from news without paying for it and spreading misinformation.

In the past few years, the EU has slapped eye-watering fines on Apple and Google in tax and competition cases, and drawn up a landmark law to curb the market dominance of Big Tech. Brussels has also toughened its code of conduct on disinformation and hate speech.

As a European court on Wednesday rejected Google's appeal against a 4.3-billion-euro antitrust fine ($5 billion at the time it was levied), we look at the battle between Brussels and Silicon Valley:

- Stifling competition -

The digital giants are regularly criticised for dominating markets by elbowing out rivals.

In July, the European Parliament adopted the Digital Markets Act to curb the market dominance of Big Tech, with violations punishable with fines of up to 10 percent of a company's annual global sales.

Brussels has slapped over eight billion euros in fines on Google alone for abusing its dominant market position.

In 2018, the company was fined 4.3 billion euros -- the biggest ever antitrust penalty imposed by the EU -- for abusing the dominant position of its Android mobile operating system to promote Google's search engine.

Google lost its appeal against that decision on Wednesday, though the fine was reduced to 4.1 billion euros.

The firm is also challenging a 2.4-billion-euro fine from 2017 for abusing its power in online shopping and a separate 1.5-billion-euro fine from 2019 for "abusive practices" in online advertising.

The EU has also gone after Apple, accusing it of blocking rivals from its contactless iPhone payment system, and fined Microsoft 561 million euros in 2013 for imposing its search engine Internet Explorer on users of Windows 7.

Italy joined in the action last year, hitting Amazon with a 1.1-billion-euro antitrust fine for abusing its dominance to push its logistics business.

- Taxation -

The EU has had less success in getting US tech companies to pay more taxes in Europe, where they are accused of funnelling profits into low-tax economies like Ireland and Luxembourg.

In one of the most notorious cases, the European Commission in 2016 found that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple and ordered the company pay 13 billion euros in back taxes.

But the EU's General Court later overturned the ruling, saying there was no evidence the company broke the rules.

The Commission also lost a similar case involving Amazon, which it had ordered to repay 250 million euros in back taxes to Luxembourg.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, France, Italy and several other European nations forged ahead with their own taxes on tech companies while waiting for a global agreement on the issue.

That came in October 2021 when the G20 group of nations agreed on a minimum 15 percent corporate tax rate. Nearly 140 countries signed up to the deal.

- Personal data -

Tech giants are regularly criticised over how they gather and use personal data.

The EU has led the charge to rein them in with its 2018 General Data Protection Regulation, which has since become an international reference.

Companies must now ask for consent when they collect personal information and may no longer use data collected from several sources to profile users against their will.

Amazon was fined 746 million euros by Luxembourg in 2021 for flouting the rules.

Earlier this month, Irish authorities fining Instagram, a Meta subsidiary, 405 million euros for breaching EU regulations on the handling of children's data.

- Fake news and hate speech -

Social networks, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are often accused of failing to tackle disinformation and hate speech.

In July, the European Parliament approved a Digital Services Act that forces big online companies to reduce risks linked to disinformation or face fines of up to six percent of their global turnover.

- Paying for news -

Google and other online platforms are also accused of making billions from news without sharing the revenue with those who gather it.

To tackle this, an EU law in 2019 created a form of copyright called "neighbouring rights" allowing for print media to demand compensation for use of their content.

France was the first country to implement the directive.

After initial resistance, Google and Facebook agreed to pay French media, including AFP, for articles shown in web searches.

That did not stop the company being fined half-a-billion euros by France's competition authority in July 2021 for failing to negotiate "in good faith", a ruling Google has appealed.

Facebook has also agreed to pay for some French content.

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