Web Tracking Is Killing The Planet

War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy is listed among the world's longest novels, containing over 587,000 words. Its digital footprint is a hefty 1.9MB in size, making it a decent yardstick by which to measure digital content.

The modern web - consisting of high-resolution graphics, massive javascript libraries, and custom fonts - has a significantly larger footprint. This presents a challenge to conducting business online, as revenue is directly tied to the efficiency of a website. Bloated sites create barriers to mobile use, reduce customer retention, and can even sabotage search engine rankings.

Doing It Right

Compressing graphics, writing custom stylesheets, and eliminating unnecessary libraries is a good start. A skilled web developer may take a holistic approach to tell a story, deliver content, and delight visitors - all while keeping page size to a minimum. The average page on this site loads 10 files, totaling 267 kilobytes, in 271 milliseconds over a broadband connection. Our news site, privc.io loads 15 files, totaling 242KB, in 387ms. My personal site, ethanfgrant.com loads 6 files, totaling 69KB, in 243ms. All three sites generate perfect scores from Google.

Doing It Wrong

Here are some popular home pages much larger than War And Peace: amazon.com (12MB), apple.com (5MB), facebook.com (7MB), microsoft.com (3MB), netflix.com (4MB), pornhub.com (5MB), reddit.com (15MB), and youtube.com (9MB). Every year, these companies pay millions of dollars for web development, and their sites are still so bloated, they have to pour even more money into the most expensive hosting platforms and content delivery networks to keep them running. I'm not calling these titans of industry evil, I'm saying they're stupid.

Small businesses spend a lot less money on web development, but they're getting screwed too. Popular shared hosting providers (including BigCommerce, Jimdo, Shopify, Squarespace, and Weebly) secretly add over 300KB of tracking content to every page. The worst offender is Wix, which adds a whopping 5MB of tracking to every page. Now that is evil.

Global Impact

It would be easy to denounce huge corporations as fools and shared hosting platforms as evil, and leave it at that. But their decisions have real impacts on the health of the planet. Transmitting content requires energy for cloud services, distribution platforms, internet routing equipment, and end-user devices. And if that energy comes from fossil fuels, it produces pollution, causes lasting harm to biodiversity, and intensifies the effects of climate change.

In 2011, two researchers at the University of California estimated the internet used around 3% of global energy, but bitcoin mining and billions of new devices have exploded that number. Current projections point to 20% use of global energy by 2025.

"More than one billion new internet users are expected, growing from three billion in 2015 to 4.1bn by 2020. Over the next five years global IP networks will support up to 10bn new devices and connections, increasing from 16.3bn in 2015 to 26bn by 2020," says Cisco.

The industry has long argued that it can considerably reduce carbon emissions by increasing efficiency and reducing waste, but academics are challenging industry assumptions.

The world's largest cloud provider, Amazon Web Services, has failed to meet deadlines for running data centers on renewable energy, and has come under fire for hiding the extent of their carbon emissions footprint.

Paul Johnston, a former AWS employee and green data center advocate, felt that unless companies are fined for their impact or otherwise incentivized to switch to renewables, the energy transition won’t keep pace with what science says is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

While cloud providers struggle to migrate to renewable energy sources, content creators have a responsibility to eliminate bloat. The digital advertising industry has been called a complete fraud, analytics reports are useless vanity, and the tracking content behind both is destroying the planet.

Published August 25, 2019 by Ethan F Grant