Striking the Right Balance for Digitalization
The advantages of digital technology in the fight against climate change outweigh the costs, says MEP Tiemo Wölken.
In interview, Tiemo Wölken of the SPD and member and legal policy spokesman for the S&D in European Parliament committees, states that “The advantages of digital technology in the fight against climate change outweigh the costs”.
Laura Treskatis: You were responsible for the EU Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee’s own-initiative report on the Digital Services Act. How do you think illegal and hate content online can best be combated, and where do you draw red lines?
Tiemo Wölken: First of all, I would like to stress how important this new legal act is. The current legal framework for the regulation of Internet platforms is over 20 years old. An enormous transformation has taken place during that time. Twenty years ago, Google was just 2 years old, Amazon was a bookseller, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were founded much later.
As such, it should go without saying that the reform is absolutely overdue. With the Digital Services Act, we are now getting a new constitution for digital services that brings our legislation up to date and establishes important common rules of the game, such as an EU-wide system for removing illegal content online – something that previously only existed in individual Member States: taking, for example, Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG).
The centrepiece of the DSA is a new regime for moderating content online, simply referred to as “content moderation”. This includes very important tools like a notification procedure to take down illegal content and new transparency rules. But as I see it, the rights of users haven’t been expanded far enough in some areas. The decisions of platforms always remain comprehensible and transparent. It should also be easy to file complaints and to defend oneself against any wrong decisions made by platforms to remove content, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like freedom of expression and its boundaries.
What is also particularly important to me is that we do not succumb to the temptation to delete as much illegal content as quickly as possible using automated tools and upload filters. Such tools unfortunately make mistakes, with freedom of expression online ending up as collateral damage. I still believe that automated tools such as upload filters are not appropriate instruments to deal with illegal content online – especially when they touch on complex content with fundamental rights implications. With this being the case, I am glad that we were able to stipulate in my own-initiative report that there must be no obligation to use such tools, and I hope that this position will also be reflected in the European Parliament’s final report on the DSA.
Treskatis: In your opinion, what level of importance does digitalization have for sustainability and climate protection?
Wölken: Digital transformation and climate policy are the two top priorities at European level. The Commission is introducing ambitious regulatory projects in both fields and committing large amounts of funding.
But both goals can also run counter to each other; for example, when we think about the short lifespan of digital innovations. Digital hardware is constantly getting upgraded, our mobile phones are getting faster, have better screens, more computing power. What is true for mobile phones is also true for supercomputers, server infrastructure and mobile phone networks, which have to be replaced frequently to stay up to date.
Treskatis: So what needs to be done?
Wölken: On the consumer side, we need to introduce a right to repair to extend the life of consumer devices (e.g. mobile phones, computers). Producers should be obliged to stock spare parts and allow consumers to repair them on their own.
On the supplier side, we should encourage the use of more environmentally efficient infrastructure and technology. This would include the modernisation of data center cooling systems and the higher prioritisation of energy efficiency in consumer appliances, such as through the new energy efficiency labels that can now be seen everywhere in retail.
On the other hand, digitalization can also make a significant contribution to achieving our climate goals. Progressive digitalization often brings major efficiency gains. A good example of this is server infrastructure: it used to be highly decentralized, but now cloud innovations are enabling more and more centralisation in large data centers. This enables more energy-efficient operation of the facilities through better cooling and better server utilisation.
When it comes to digital legislation, the climate dimension must always be borne in mind. This is well illustrated by the example of AI. We are currently engaged in discussions on the AI Act, a new regulation that is intended to regulate high-risk applications. We should make sure that climate targets play a role in the classification of AI applications and that data on energy consumption is also collected by these applications. AI can bring great efficiency gains through process optimization in many areas, for example the logistics industry as well as in the Smart Home or Smart City.
At the same time, AI algorithms are trained and operated with a very high computing power input – a good balance must be struck here.
In terms of climate impact, the following also applies: digitalization and AI are not good or bad per se, with this depending on the relevance of the application. Innovation is not an end in itself. New applications must be tested for the following: Do they really bring efficiency gains? How much material and energy do the applications themselves require? How transparent are they for consumers?
Ultimately, I have the firm conviction that the advantages of digitalization in the fight against climate change outweigh the costs, but digital technology must be used appropriately.
Treskatis: In this context, how do you rate the “Fit for 55” package and where do you think there might be a need for further action?
Wölken: Specifically, the proposal on the energy efficiency of data centers should be mentioned here. This can be found in the proposal for the Energy Efficiency Directive, where the Commission sees four dimensions of sustainability that need to be improved: Efficiency of energy consumption; share of renewable energy; waste heat utilisation; use of fresh water. The energy consumption and also water consumption of the largest centers is to be monitored by the Member States on a mandatory basis from 2024. Building on this, the Commission wants to develop a sustainability label for data centers, but is initially relying on soft rules and voluntary action.
In the past, regulations for voluntary standardization have often shown that this was only a preliminary step for future legal regulations. In view of the urgency of the climate problem, mandatory standards and certification should also be specified from the outset on the part of companies.
In general, we need more binding targets for the EU Member States, which will have further instruments in their hands to become climate neutral. Among other things, we need the binding and rapid roll-out of the charging infrastructure across Europe and nationally binding targets for the roll-out of renewable energies, which the Commission is unfortunately only planning to achieve at an EU-wide level.
Generally speaking, we need effective obligations that primarily apply to producers and companies, not to consumers. Essentially, this is the only way we can shape markets.
Tiemo Wölken has been a member of the SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany) since 2004 and was previously active in Jusos, a volunteer youth organization of the SPD. The Otterndorf-born politician studied law in Osnabrück, where he currently lives. In November 2016, he became a member of the European Parliament for the Weser-Ems district. As a member and legal policy spokesman for the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the Legal Affairs Committee, as well as in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, Tiemo Wölken is strongly committed to sustainable climate policy and European legal standards. He places a particular emphasis on digital policy.
Laura Treskatis is PR Consultant for Political Communication at eco – Association of the Internet Industry. She is responsible for topics related to digital policy. Before joining eco in October 2019, she was a freelance journalist.