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BBC Documentary ‘Dirty Streaming’ Exposes the ‘Internet’s Big Secret’

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Dirty Streaming explores a somewhat unknown side effect of the growth of streaming video: the environmental impact of data centers.

The streaming revolution has had a number of unexpected effects across a wide range of industries and sites of human interaction. Among perhaps one of the least talked about effects of the ever-expanding streaming video market is its environmental and ecological impact. 

A new documentary produced by the BBC explores this somewhat unknown aspect of the public’s appetite for streaming video. Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret is available for streaming on BBC Three on iPlayer from Thursday 5 March 2020. According to its description, the film “goes in search of the internet and discovers that ‘the cloud’ is actually a vast network of energy-guzzling data centres and undersea cables.” In a clip on BBC.com, filmmaker Beth Webb claims that watching the entire series Peaky Blinders on a streaming video service uses as much energy as a drive from Birmingham, England to Manchester – about 86 miles.

The film goes on to cite the advent of 5G wireless technologies and cryptocurrency mining has also contributed to a rapid rise in electricity use. As these technologies are adopted more widely, the need for more electricity will continue to rise. In time, the internet may use as much electricity as the whole of the United States

While the documentary is raising awareness of so-called “dirty” streaming, some experts are already calling some of the claims the film makes misleading. “The programme made the important point that we need to become more responsible digital citizens,” said Emma Fryer, Associate Director of Data Centres at techUK. “Not everyone understands that our internet society is enabled by physical infrastructure that has an impact beyond our own devices and the freemium and advertorial business models that tend to predominate send no signal to the consumer of the carbon and energy impact of their online activity.”

Fryer also said that while the film brings up important issues, it gets some of its facts wrong. “We have stated that it is important that people understand how the internet works and that we do have an impact beyond charging our phones and laptops. “However, a number of claims made by the programme were misleading or simply incorrect, for instance, the assertion that data centres depend on fossil fuels.  In fact, the ICT sector is world-leading in its adoption of renewables.” Fryer went on to claim that over 75% of the electricity purchased for their UK data center is 100% renewable. 

Fact-checked or not, the issues brought up by Dirty Streaming should at least make us pause and perhaps consider other ways of watching video such as with an HD antenna, which requires much less energy and still offers a wide selection of channels in most areas. 

The relationship between electricity use streaming video, cloud and data services, gaming, and wireless networks is a seldom talked about aspect of our reliance on modern technologies. As our reliance grows, so too will our need for power. But the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. I need my Disney+ and Netflix. While the film could be taken as a screed against these technologies, it instead can be a call for more renewable sources of power or devices which are more efficient.

Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret is available for streaming on BBC Three on iPlayer.

By Brett Bowen

Brett Bowen is a writer from North Carolina. Brett most often writes about the intersections of science and technology and culture. You can reach him at [email protected]

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