Your Google searches are killing the planet. That’s the story the world’s news organisations are running with today, first appearing in the UK’s Sunday Times with this headline-grabbing intro

Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea, according to new research. While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2. Boiling a kettle generates about 15g.

It’s the kind of study that probably made the papers’ tech editors wee their pants just a little bit, combining Google — a perennial favourite in cutting-edge mainstream IT news, along with fawning over new Apple products, Facebook groups and the slightest happening on Second Life — with the hot-button issue of global warming. As an added bonus, the study was done by a Harvard University physicist, Alex Wissner-Gross. Imagine their relief when something like this rolled off the wire at this news-deficient time of year, saving them from having to run yet another report from the Consumer Electronics Show.

“Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power,” said Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon. “A Google search has a definite environmental impact.”

Yep, it’s a great little story. But it’s an even better piece of PR, and most papers quite happily reprinted the Times article verbatim, without any apparent extra research into Harvard’s Alex Wissner-Gross, or his business, which they all inadvertently promote.

Wissner-Gross has submitted his research for publication by the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and has also set up a website www.CO2stats.com. “Google are very efficient but their primary concern is to make searches fast and that means they have a lot of extra capacity that burns energy,” he said.

And in an accompanying Times piece that gives Wissner-Gross even more air-time:

Over the years, Internet users have become accustomed to demanding certain levels of service from the websites that they visit. It is now de rigueur for e-commerce sites to present badges certifying that their credit card processing systems are secure. Savvy users even know to watch for certification that sites they visit are safe from hacker attacks and that have audited privacy policies to protect their identities. Websites now need to be put under pressure to clean up their environmental impacts too and demonstrate that their sites are as green as they can be.

And guess who can help websites do just that?

As well as being a Harvard physicist, Wissner-Gross runs a start-up company offering web hosts the chance to calculate their site’s energy consumption and purchase credits to offset its carbon footprint. For a fee, of course.

A quick visit to the actual website shows that  CO2Stats has nothing to do with the study on Google-search energy consumption, which is the article’s hook (the study isn’t actually published yet); it is simply the site selling Wissner-Gross’s services.

As businesses go, making websites more eco-friendly is a pretty positive enterprise. But Wissner-Gross has a definite agenda — not to mention business — to promote in criticising Google’s energy usage, and neither the Times, nor anyone reprinting their copy, bothered to divulge it. 

The story has been all over the blogosphere, Twitter, and tech sites like Techmeme and Slashdot, and suddenly, everyone’s talking about websites’ carbon footprints. Say, I know a guy that can help you offset that…

On the upside, think of all the carbon emissions that are saved by lazy editors and journalists who don’t bother fact-checking PR like this with a few simple Google searches.

Peter Fray

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