Heavy websites are a tax on poor and environment

Those who can least afford the Internet pay most for it. These poorer people, often from minority groups, pay a double exploitative tax when they visit websites that are often 10 times heavier and slower than they need to be. Even when this is pointed out, the managers of such websites rarely take action to make their websites less discriminatory.

In the US: “people who can least afford internet services are being offered substantially lower quality internet than other people living in the same city, for the same price," a report published in The Markup in October 2022 found. Internet service providers "offered the worst deals to people who are the most in need of affordable prices for high-quality, high-speed internet."

For example, “CenturyLink offered internet speeds ranging from 0.5 Mbps to 200 Mbps within the same city for $50 a month. As a result, the cost per offered Mbps ranged from more than $100 per Mbps to 25 cents per Mbps … In cities where the providers offered different speeds in different areas, the residents living in areas that disproportionately received the worst deals were lower income (92% of cities) and people of color (66% of cities).”

There’s nothing surprising here. This sort of malpractice has been going on as long as I can remember. There’s also nothing surprising about the fact that a great many websites are filled with wholly unnecessary bloated code and content. This bloat has a particularly negative impact on poorer people with older phones and really bad Internet plans. Telling organizations about this seems to have zero impact on behavior in a great many cases.

What I have found even stranger is that many of the organizations claiming to be environmental champions are the worst offenders. One particularly egregious example is the Irish Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. According to the Website Carbon Calculator, its homepage is “dirtier than 86% of web pages tested.” Just one of the images on the page weighs in at 2.8 MB, when with the most basic of optimization, it should weigh no more than 100 KB. This webpage has been like this for years.

Ireland is using 14% of its electricity to power data centers, and if the government has its way, it’ll allow twice as many data centers to set up over the coming years. We just don’t care about data. We treat data like we treated oil in the 1960s, something that’s so cheap that we can use it like it’s a limitless resource. It’s not. Data has a cost to the environment, and data has the highest cost to the poorest members of society.

Environmental organization after environmental organization I go to have horrible, anti-environmental websites. So many environmental reports are published as diesel-sucking, bloated, pollution-puffing PDFs. Well written HTML is the most environmentally friendly language you can use to publish on the Web.

The Cloud is on the ground. Digital is physical. Data has a cost to the environment. The less data, the less of a cost. How is that so difficult for people to understand and act on? Let’s stop living in digital fantasy land. Digital has massive and growing costs to the environment. It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.

How We Uncovered Disparities in Internet Deals, Leon Yin, Aaron Sankin, The Markup, 2022

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