Comment »Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 9:27 am by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

This week the internet security company McAfee released the results of a survey they commissioned on the carbon footprint of email spam. The survey shows that the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). This is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes. And 80% of it comes from us searching for and deleting spam emails from our inboxes.

Wow. That’s huge. Imagine how goody green-drops we would be if we had some way of getting rid of spam? Well we don’t need to imagine, we can just buy McAfee’s Spamkiller software.

There is nothing wrong with a company paying for a survey that might increase the brand-profile of one of its products. After all, that just makes good business sense. But there is something a bit sad about the way this was picked up by mainstream, well-respected publications and reported as news. The worst case is a New Scientist article in their online Tech section. This was a near verbatim repeat of McAfee’s press release with the addition of one quote – from Jeff Green, McAfee’s senior vice president of product development.

There are similar articles hopping around cyberspace, replicated in part or whole on various sites. They all do the same thing; they report the story as straight news, with a carbon footprint quote from someone at McAfee. My favourite is James Murray’s report for entitled Spam Epidemic Results in Giant Carbon Footprint. Getting “epidemic” and “Carbon Footprint” in the same heading is pretty impressive. I challenge anyone not to click on the article if it appears in their Google news results.

Luckily, that particular article dose not actually appear on a Google news search for “carbon footprint spam”. The top article in that search is, in fact, a piece where the writer appears to have grasped more than the copy and paste functions of a keyboard. Jeremy A. Kaplan from should be applauded for being the only writer I found who applied his critical faculties to the McAfee study.

In Why the Spam Carbon Footprint Study is Wrong Kaplan makes the simple point that most of the energy we use whilst filtering and deleting emails (the process that accounts for 80% of the carbon footprint McAfee have calculated) comes from having a computer switched on. And by including a computer’s footprint in their calculations the study grossly overestimated the true effects of the spam epidemic.

Kaplan’s article was posted later than many of the other pieces and it illustrates well why taking time over a story can make for better journalism. If you read the McAfee study properly, mulled it over for a bit and then set about deciding whether it’s newsworthy, queries like Kaplan’s tend to crop up. Then when you speak to or, more likely, email someone at McAfee, you might just ask them about why the study they commissioned points more to the carbon footprint of computer uses rather than of spam emails. And that way, you might do more than play your part in their corporate marketing scheme. You might do some journalism.

All this is even more surprising given a similar statistical manipulation that burned a bona fide journalist at The Sunday Times back in January. Google and You’ll Damage the Planet claimed that just two Google searches has the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle. This was almost instantly refuted by Google as Jacob reported. A search is equivalent to 0.2g of carbon, whereas a kettle burns 7g. The Times Online version of the article now carries a clarification. It claims that the original article based its numbers on the amount of carbon produced in the average number of searches done before some one finds the information they need, rather than in a one-click search. But this correction didn’t matter. The response from Google spread across the web quicker, discrediting the article.

The Google-Kettle episode taught us how precarious calculations of computing carbon footprints are. But those reporting the McAfee survey chose to forget that in favour of an easy article. Maybe that’s a little harsh; perhaps they are just too busy filtering their spam mail to do any real reporting.

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