Green IO
#39 - European Regulations in Tech: some insider perspectives with Kim Van Sparrentak and Max Schulze
May 21, 2024
🔎 Major regulations have been built up in Europe these past years impacting the Tech sectors. How have they been built? What does it take to pass these kinds of bills in the unique European Union political system? And what are the consequences for the people working in the digital industry? 🎙️ This episode 39 welcomes Kim Van Sparrentak, a Member of the European Parliament involved in legislation related to tech and sustainability, and Max Schulze, the founder and chairman of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, one of the main lobby groups for more responsible technology. Together with Gael Duez, they share their perspective on the European regulations in Tech. Some points which have been discussed: ⚖️ the Artificial Intelligence Act, 🌱 Environmental transparency among actors, and 🤝 the Influence of big tech companies through lobbying
🔎 Major regulations have been built up in Europe these past years impacting the Tech sectors. How have they been built? What does it take to pass these kinds of bills in the unique European Union political system? And what are the consequences for the people working in the digital industry? 

🎙️ This episode 39 welcomes Kim Van Sparrentak, a Member of the European Parliament involved in legislation related to tech and sustainability, and Max Schulze, the founder and chairman of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, one of the main lobby groups for more responsible technology. Together with Gael Duez, they share their perspective on the European regulations in Tech.

Some points which have been discussed:
⚖️ the Artificial Intelligence Act,
🌱 Environmental transparency among actors, and
🤝 the Influence of big tech companies through lobbying

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Kim and Max's sources and other references mentioned in this episode:


Intro 00:00
When you sit in a plane, you want the plane to be safe. And you look at your government, your elected government, say like, Hey, you better make sure those planes are safe because otherwise I'm going to die. With tech, most of society today, they're getting a lot of their truths, their information out of modern technology. And it's a little bit like asking somebody who really likes to smoke to advocate for stopping the tobacco industry.

Gael Duez 00:34
Hello everyone, welcome to Green IO with Gaël Duez. That's me. Green IO is the podcast for responsible technologists building a greener digital world, one byte at a time, twice a month on a Tuesday, our guests from across the globe share insights, tools and alternative approaches, enabling people within the tech sector and beyond to boost digital sustainability. And because accessible and transparent information is in the DNA of Green IO, all the references mentioned in this episode, as well as the transcript will be in the show notes both on your podcast platform and on our website

The long arm of European Tech Regulation, I'm not sure who coined the term, but it surely resonated with me when I heard it the first time. The classical example is GDPR, the data protection law which has inspired similar bills in Indonesia, India or Colombia, just to name a few. It's fair to say that despite remaining an economic giant, the European Union is not leading the race in digital technologies compared to lets say China or the USA. However, it's clearly having a major influence in shaping how people use digital technologies worldwide. And when it comes to sustainability, it's an arm the size of Elastigirl from the Incredibles movie that was talking about taxonomy, GDPR, energy efficiency directive, you name it. Major regulations have been built up these past years impacting all economic sectors and especially tech. This is why I have been eager for a while to have a good overview of these regulations, as well as those in the pipeline for quite a long time now. And to be honest, I'm also curious how they've been built. What does it take to pass these kinds of bills in the unique European Union political system? 

Hence, my need to have solid guides to navigate the Brussels Maze and I couldn't find better than Kim and Max. Kim Van Sparrentak is a member of the European Parliament. She's a member of the Green Party, and she has been involved in pretty much all legislation related to tech and sustainability in these last five years. And Max Schulze, he's a former engineer with quite long experience in it, and he's now the founder and chairman of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance and he has been very involved in positive lobbying, I would say, among sustainability for the tech industry. 

Now, I'm honored to have both Kim and Max. I owe some disclosure to my audience before I let them introduce themselves in more detail and explain how they've been interested in this sustainability work. This work, sorry around sustainability, but I owe you a full disclosure. I'm a member of the SDIA, a very, very passive member, and that was just for support and I'm not a member of the Green Party, so full disclosure, and I'm not a member of any political party.

Very nice to meet you, Kim and Max. Maybe just to clarify a bit the wordings and set the stage. Kim, could you, I'd say that I know it's super hard exercise, but what kind of legislation does the European Union pass? How does it, I mean, we hear about laws, bills, regulations, et cetera. I think it's maybe good to, for instance, we've heard, I've mentioned GDPR, which is a regulation, but there are different kinds of laws. So without answering a full lecture, it might be worse for understanding the discussions later to get a grasp on how it works.

Kim Van Sparrentak 04:28
Yes. So basically you have, if you keep it very short, there's two types. You have directives, and a directive gives basically guidelines to member states with sort of minimum standards on what they have to make sure happens in their member state. But depending on what the current rules are already in a respective country, they can adjust as long as they sort of reach the goals of the directive. And then you have regulations and acts, and that is a standard for the whole European Union. And especially when it comes to digital technology, we have lots of acts and regulations because they are related to the internal market and we want the same standard for products and platforms in the European single market and the single digital market.

Gael Duez 05:20
And I think it was just a good reminder of how it works. Now, my first question for both of you would be what are, according to you, the main legislations covering both sustainability and digital technology that we should be aware of? And maybe, Max, you want to start with?

Max Schulze 05:39
Yeah, I think we talked about it before the call a bit, but, so I would describe it, people can't see me, but I would describe it that we have regulation on the very top layer and at the very bottom layer. And what I mean is we have something like the Digital Markets Act, we have the Digital Services Act. We have things that are trying to regulate the products and services. So the metas and the really big platforms and Airbnbs of this world and Spotify and try to set rules on how you can make a product or a digital service in the European market. And then we have the very bottom layer, which is about digital infrastructure. So data centers, fiber, which is the energy efficiency directive. There is something in the taxonomy about this where we say this is how we want the physical infrastructure to be built. 

One point, because you already described me as a lobbyist, so I'm going to lobby here. What we're missing at the moment in Europe is always a more systemic perspective because these products and services that are very large use a lot of these infrastructures, and we don't target it as one. We target it as two different blocks. And I think we ought to have a bit more of a systemic perspective on the digital realm to be more effective in implementing sustainability. But at the moment, it's these two fronts, which are also two different parts of the commission essentially pushing different things. But maybe I missed something, Kim.

Kim Van Sparrentak 07:03
No, I think you're very correct. And I think one of the things that is, I think the most important thing to know before we can really dive into the legislation per se is that we actually don't fully grasp what the environmental impact of technology is right now. Because all these tech companies are very fake about how much energy they actually use. They are claiming their sustainment. I mean, Amazon lobbyists have told me they're the most sustainable company in the world. I don't know how, but they are according to themselves. And one of the things that we're all the time seeing is that we don't have enough evidence on how much energy they actually use or how much water they use, which is, of course, also a major issue, or how much rare materials they use. And that makes it more difficult to make legislation. And I can tell you, as an environmental activist, when I hear we're fighting for transparency, I was always like, no, we want change. But in this case, the first fight is more transparency on how much energy and rare materials and water is actually used by these tech companies.

Max Schulze 08:19
I'm just building on that. I think I've been doing this now for four years, and I've been stuck in this endless loop that I have come to understand is actually a political strategy of the other lobbyists, let's say, which is of European value, says we only regulate things where we have facts. It's very deeply rooted. I'm German also, even more so in Germany. We cannot touch something where we are not sure, where we don't have evidence and facts and scientific things, which I think is a really good value to have. I think that's nice. But because in the absence of this transparency, we never have real facts. Like, we might know that Google uses this many kilowatts, hours of energy, but how much is in one YouTube video, we don't know. Right? How much is in an Instagram picture? We don't know. How much is in online banking applications? We don't know. So by not having this transparency, we can never really effectively come up with standards or regulations or levels of what we want to get to. All I can do, really, what I'm an activist for, is transparency, because in the absence of facts, it's hard to make good regulation. And though I wish that maybe this year or after these elections, we can try to break out of this loop and just make a regulation to enforce transparency.

Gael Duez 09:33
And being able to build proper regulations based on facts, facts being provided by transparency regulation. Okay, so thanks for the clarification, because I think this is a very important statement that we are kind of guessing at the moment and not being able to be as precise as we would like, as we are today in all the economic sectors. As you offered, Kim, we deep dive a bit. Maybe you want to start with your little darling, which is an Artificial Intelligence Act. And I guess the environmental impact is very interesting as well.

Kim Van Sparrentak 10:09
Yeah, it is, my baby. Especially the environmental part, because this is what we've been really, as greens, fighting for. Of course, the focus of the Artificial Intelligence Act was to make sure that it was like that we have artificial intelligence based on ethics, on human rights, but we knew that from the start that we also would like to look at the environmental aspect, because we know that the amount of emissions that comes from making AI, and especially generative AI, such as ChatGPT, is just– it's massive. And as I said, we don't know exactly how massive, but we know pretty massive. There's estimates that asking Alexa to turn off a light bulb is as much as leaving the light bulb on for 12 hours. So, you know, like, you're completely trumping the idea of sustainability or turning by turning your lights off. So we knew that in one of the first leaked versions of the Artificial Intelligence Act. So when the commission was still working on it, there was also part on sustainability in it, really making sure that because we have some key risk areas in the AI Act, like, if it can impact the judicial system, then it's high risk, and then there's stronger rules. And there was also one for sustainability. It was very disappointing to see when the final version came out of the Artificial Intelligence Act, that part had been deleted, and we still don't know how and why, but it was quite a frustrating situation. So we've been really, really pushing to make sure that we get some sustainability aspects in again, to make sure that artificial intelligence doesn't, and the regulation doesn't only protect human rights, but also the environment. 

Just like one example, that critical infrastructure, to some extent, is also looked at, whether not only for safety, but also whether it will impact the environment. And if it can impact the environment when you use artificial intelligence, then you should also fall under high risk. And that is something we got back in. And I'm also very proud to say that we asked for actual environmental standards for artificial intelligence and also environmental transparency. Well, and that's in the European Parliament's version. As I said before, we have different versions of the act there. We really got it in. So we were asking for environmental transparency from all artificial intelligence, or at least the high risk ones, and we asked for environmental sustainability standards, really for general purpose AI. So the ChatGPTs of this world, of whom we know that they use a lot of water, energy and critical raw materials. And in the final version, we now have this environmental transparency in. And there will be in the review, at some point, they will have a look at environmental standards, which is really like, you cannot imagine what a big fight that has been, because we even had a commissioner who said artificial intelligence is numbers. Numbers can't pollute. Numbers don't have an environmental impact. You know, and it's really been a massive fight to only get people realizing that the fact we're talking about clouds, the fact that we are talking about just AI and things that sound very futuristic, doesn't mean that there's very big, ugly boxes in our environment that are just using lots of CO2 and water. 

So the fact that we managed to get it in and even got the member states on board to accept it is something I'm very proud of. And we're going to have transparency. They were going to have to be transparent. And that's such an important step to make sure that as soon as we know how much they exactly use, and we have ideas and estimates, which are mind boggling, we can really do something about it.

Gael Duez 14:32
So if I understand it well, we do have standards, or we have to have standards. What will be the standards? Because at the beginning of the discussion, we say that we terribly lack transparency. So can we have a grasp of what you think will be the future? Okay, so we've got a standard. The bill is passed. How does it work a bit more concretely?

Kim Van Sparrentak 14:56
Well, so we have a standard for transparency. But I think when you're talking about environmental standards, for example, for artificial intelligence, you are basically, you should look at the full supply chain of artificial intelligence. So you already start with thinking about, do we need, how much data do we need? There's, of course, the more data is better in the artificial intelligence world and in the tech world in general, the more data we have, the better we can do everything, which is not true. It's about quality data.  And it's not per se about more data, because if you just add more bad data, that in the end you don't have quality data. But it's also about how do you program these systems? You can program systems to run more efficiently and make sure that they don't use as much computing power as they do right now. Right now, the only goal is to make sure that you end up with something that you like. Whereas if you are a smart engineer, you can also immediately make sure that you reduce the computing power. 

And then lastly, of course, we have to also make sure that the data centers that they use are more sustainable, use less water, et cetera, and are more circular. But I think, yeah, when we really have environmental standards for AI, it really means the whole supply chain has to be readjusted. And I really hope that just by having environmental standards already, a lot of these companies are realizing how much money they waste. Because in the end, it's of course, the bottom line for these big corporations by just polluting more. And I really hope that's going to be a thing. 

One of the things I've been very worried about is that when you see these booms of certain digital tools, also with cryptocurrency, for example, suddenly it becomes almost worthwhile again to reopen coal power plants, because you will make more money than it will cost to buy off the pollution of these coal power plants. So we really have to have a different mentality and a different approach, and at least having transparency and these corporations being held accountable, hopefully through that transparency, will really change the way that these digital companies work.

Max Schulze 17:25
I really like the way you explained this, Kim. By the way, we shouldn't forget that our economy is based on energy conversion into value. And the digital world has the highest delta. So a kilowatt of energy put into the digital world can lead to the biggest value creation. A good example of that is a very good friend of all of us, Chris Adams from the Greenfield Foundation. He drilled into AWS, or Amazon's as a whole company, power consumption. He found that, first of all, that's the equivalent of Ireland. That's how much power they consume. But how much of their revenue is that in cost? And it's about 4%. So really, do they really care about the energy consumption of their business? Is it really affecting their bottom line if it's only 4% of revenue? And there you see this, how much value they squeeze out of energy is just insane, right? Just have to acknowledge that.

I want to be the digital philosopher in this podcast for a minute… So, Kim, if you would really ask her, honestly, I was never in these AI discussions, right? Even though I am a clear activist for this stuff. I've also never been in the crypto discussions because I know that I can't do anything about it, because the power that is pushing to do it exactly the way they want is so big that there's no way we can stop it. And that makes me, as a citizen of Europe, it makes me really sad that we cannot choose if we want to have AI or not. We cannot choose if we want to have crypto or not. We cannot somehow make various based choices anymore. 

To put an example, if somebody builds a nuclear power plant over there next to my house, I have a say. But if somebody builds a 400 megawatt data center, which is actually, I live in an area of the Netherlands where around me, I have about 400 data centers, I have no say, I have no way to stop it. And my values are not embedded. I cannot vote on it. I cannot say, “I don't want it. I don't want it to use fresh drinking water.” I can't. I have no power over it. And I find this incredibly frustrating. And that's why I keep also talking about the systems perspective, is that we ought to unbundle this power, because that's really what's going on. It is not that… Kim, you also talk about the right to repair a lot. Like, there's no problem repairing these things, like an iPhone or an Android device. It's just that the companies don't want it that way, and they have so much power that they'll keep it that way. And that's the systemic issue we need to get to. And so if I have very little personnel and energy. So that's why you don't see me in these, let's say, application discussions. You see me only in the discussions at the systems level or at the infrastructure level, because I think that there is, for me, as an activist, there is more impact at the moment that I can have at the top level. I know we need to do it, but I have never felt so powerless than being in these kinds of conversations.

Kim Van Sparrentak 20:28
You know, one of the major difficulties working on digital affairs is that there's not many discussions in society around these topics for generally whether we want them or not. And I think it was very clear during the Artificial Intelligence Act, at some point, we were at a point where a majority of the parliament, because of lobbyists, big tech lobbyists, set general purpose AI, generative AI, and foundation models like ChatGPT and DALI from the AI Act. That's where we were at. No one is better than I. Most people were like, AI act also my colleagues. Great, you are doing that because it sounds complicated. And then ChatGPT came out, and there was a massive discussion in society on what these systems can do. Do we want that? Do we want them to be regulated? And suddenly the mood shifted, and we wrote a whole chapter on what we had to do with foundation models. What we don't have right now is a societal discussion indeed on what we want when it comes to digitization, is it useful? Do we need all these things that can generate videos for some reason, while we know that that uses lots of energy and can be used in a dangerous way when it comes to our democracies, for example, we need that discussion, and it's very difficult to start a discussion from top down. 

So it's something that I'm really thinking about. And I think one of the first things, and this diverges a bit from the core of this podcast, so I'll keep it very short. But one of the core things I'm working on is seeing how we can deal with digitization in the work environment, because that's where most people actually experience digitization already, and where we can actually have discussions on whether we want our bosses to know exactly how many keystrokes per hour we do. And I think by having a lot of people involved in the discussions on whether they want digitization on the workflow, we can actually, hopefully, create a more broad discussion. How much digitization do we actually want, and to what extent do we want to stay human in this world? So that's really something I hope will happen. But it's necessary in order to, indeed change that system where right now there's a few big corporations with all the knowledge and all the power versus, you know. Yeah, quite a difficult situation.

Max Schulze 23:15
I just want to point out. Okay, you are an entrepreneur. I'm an entrepreneur– used to be. And I'm the son of a secretary. I came into software 15 years ago thinking that I can automate all the stuff that my mom is doing because it's such a waste of time, like scanning receipts, scheduling meetings, responding to silly emails. And these problems are still not solved 15 years later. We have amazing technology. If you read the news, like, wow, I still scan receipts with my phone. The OCR still doesn't work. I have to manually correct the amounts and upload it to some system. Even with jet DBT and all this stuff, the fundamental things that digitalization promised us, making us, giving us a better life, more free time, that we don't have to do menial work. I feel like I have to do more menial work now than I've ever had to before, but I just use 40 different tools to do it.

Gael Duez 24:11
But Max, if you allow me to borrow your philosopher hat, and then we will move on to one of the regulations. Actually, you worked quite a lot on it, but you know, that's going to be true philosophy. I think we need a bit of a niche here. When you say, you know, God is dead, we killed it. And the truth is, in today's society, technology is not a tool. It's a God. It's a religion. It's the religion of progress that has completely bypassed all the former religions in Europe. Europe is a very, I mean, except maybe some eastern countries and still very agnostic, I would say, to say the least, places. But there is one true religion, which is technology. Technology is good. Technology will solve everything. And I can say it very freely as a technologist because I enjoy technology. But as you stated in the introduction of this podcast, it's very important to use it as it is, which is pharmakon, which is both a cure and a poison. And that's something that is barely understandable, I think, in today's society, because technology is not at a rational place. It is literally at the place almost at par with God. So it will save us. And that's very hard to open the debate in societies and even harder when people are working in technology, because they like the new doctors of society, you know, they can cure and save everything, and let's save the problem. But if we move on to something where, Max, you believed you had a bit more influence on top of being a tech philosopher, you mentioned the right to repair directive. Maybe we should talk a bit about this one as well.

Max Schulze 25:56
Yeah, but I think to give some space to Kim, I think she should give the overview again, and then I can add some commentary on that.

Kim Van Sparrentak 26:06
Sure. So, yeah, we have an initiative to have the right to repair, and this is now also legislation that we only need a final vote on. And it means that, yeah, we want to give people the right to repair, and that's also what the legislation said. But what does that mean? It sounds a bit vague, but, for example, think of your iPhone. I think it's the easiest example, one part of your iPhone breaks and you have to buy a full new one because it's not possible to change the battery because it's glued in, it's not possible to properly change other parts. So at some point your phone just goes to waste. 

But there's also other aspects, which is, for example, the internal software. This is not fully part of the right to repair, but that's also one of the things that we're seeing more and more, that at some point you can't update your software anymore and you just have to get rid of your phone. And this is, of course, a very smart business model, but it's not a business model that's going to get us anywhere, us having to buy a new phone every two, three years when we're lucky. 

So yeah, this is one of the things that we wanted to work on and one of the things that we are now going to push for is making sure that products are able to be repaired. And secondly, that also, this doesn't only have to be done by the company itself, so you don't have to go to Apple with your iPhone. And also that spare parts will be still available for a long time, so you can actually do it for a long time. And it's not that after three years, like, oh, yeah, no, that spare part doesn't exist anymore. So it's very interesting that we really go from the angle of consumer rights and that we make it a right to repair. And I think this is actually something we're going to see more and more in the future, that we are coming from a consumer protection angle when it comes to environmental but also digital rights. And it's very interesting. And I think the right to repair is really one of the first ones.

Max Schulze 28:22
It's a good overview. I think there was something in there that I will build on, which is this idea of software obsolescence, because I know that Gaël’s audience is a lot of people who make tech. And you all maybe remember the Internet Explorer thing where I was a web developer and I hated Internet Explorer because you had to always build websites that work in the most cutting edge case, but also in the legacy case, which was Internet explorer. And eventually we said we're just not going to support it anymore. But we still do that in software that we build on the latest MacBook Pros. We have the supercomputer at home and that's what we're building for. But we need to start thinking about building for less fast devices and also supporting them for much longer because we need to realize that it's always software that forces hardware to be thrown away. Always. It's an operating system that doesn't work anymore for me. I'm not so much on the consumer side, I'm a lot on the data center side. And there is firmware of switches that gets deprecated. And then all of a sudden a very functional switch that's maybe three years old needs to be replaced because somebody said, ah, you know, this switch, it's like three years old, we're not going to support it anymore. 

This is all a choice of software engineers. Sometimes it's also a business decision, but a lot of times it's a, it's a, it's a choice of software people, and we need to be really careful with those choices. Especially most hardware doesn't get faster anymore. So this idea of replacing it to get more speed has long been obsolete. And we need to make sure that everything should be backwards compatible at this point, at least for the last ten years of hardware generation.

Gael Duez 30:08
And is it this ten word number, which is a pretty big one for any software engineer or designers? Is it something that is already enforced by law, or is it something that we should get prepared to?

Max Schulze 30:22
Well, I tell you, I wish I had some numbers that I could tell you how much hardware is being made obsolete by software, but there we go with my favorite word, and Kim is also now using it a lot is the word transparency, we just don't know. But I appeal to all of you who are using these days browser based applications or things that are desktop apps, but they're actually just Google Chrome inside, Electron apps, for example. Look at how much memory they're using. You look at how much of their computer's performance is absorbed by essentially software that assumes that you have 8Gb of memory or 16 Gb of memory. And like I said, it's the same with the argument of my mom. I have a very fast computer these days, and I still manage to find like four applications that completely drag it down. And that just means that somebody didn't pay attention to that and assumed that everybody sits on this mega machine. If you want an economic argument to that, the majority of society does not have MacBook Pros. So if you want your product to be usable, high performing, you must make it work on really slow devices. Because the majority site is not on iPhones, not on MacBook Pros, it's not on HP elite books, it's on cheap 300 euro laptops, cheap phones. That's where the market is at. And if you want economic reasoning, there you go. Go get that market. 

Gael Duez 31:50
Thanks, Max. Still, I go back to my question. This right to repair, I got it about spare parts not being forced to go to your vendor. And I know that Apple is a true champion about it. But what about this software angle? Is there anything in the law saying that, “Hey, you need to maintain the software long enough” Or was it a kind of a lost battle in the bill?

Kim Van Sparrentak 32:17
If I'm correct, it's not in this specific law, it's in another one. And we now are saying that planned obsolescence also for software should not be possible. I think, yeah, I think it's the eco design directive, part of the empowering consumers for the green transition. But there's so many of these legislations that it's very possible it's the eco design directive, but there are so many right now. And indeed eco design again is then an environmental standards directive. And then you also have the consumer angle again, where it's about, I think also about this plant obsolescence. So I'm not sure if it was an environmental standard or consumer protection standard, but we're saying plant obsolescence shouldn't be possible anymore. But that's a problem because how can you prove that a company actively planned for your products to not work anymore? So we're still working on the legal angle of that.

Max Schulze 33:22
I think that's also something we really struggle with in general for your listeners, is that enforceability? One of the biggest problems in general with software. And I'm going to use our favorite search engine in the world again as an example. Let's say we force Google to reduce the energy consumption per search by 10%. Let's say we do that. How are you going to check? Because every time you ask them, can I see it? They're like, no, sorry, that's intellectual property. How we do search, and it's true. That's their IP. How they do that is their secret. I get that, but how are we going to check? If we can never look behind the curtain? And they always say, like, we promise it's better now. You can't show you, but it's better. That's a bit. This enforcement issue and we don't have, unfortunately, Kim knows we don't have any internet police either that drives around and looks at digital applications and is checking like, is this one energy efficient? Is this one energy efficient? Is this one using minerals from child labor somewhere down the value chain? It's very tricky, because software, you only see the facade and it's very hard to look behind the curtain. And the first attempt to do that was to look at data centers, but it's very far behind the curtain. That's like looking at the light bulb of the stage. All we wanted to do was look behind the curtain, but now we're somehow like in the very back of it. And that's why I think we need to figure out a way, how do we actually check software to uphold the rules and values that we have tried to embody through regulation?

Gael Duez 34:55
And is there anything in the pipeline about this specific enforcement issue or not at the moment?

Max Schulze 35:01
This year's advocacy strategy for the SAA, and soon with a new name, is to educate policymakers. So to essentially just train people on the systemic understanding, because as long as we use technology and product also as synonymous, and data center, and fiber as synonymous, it's very tricky to get there. But I think the thing that's in the pipeline is a better understanding of how this works, which should lead to better regulation.

Kim Van Sparrentak 35:29
One of the things I'm trying to get into place is a digital agency. So one agency in the EU that can enforce all the major digital legislation. This would mean that there is an agency that gets insight on artificial intelligence, for example, that is being used by big corporations. And if they already have that, they could perhaps also look at the environmental impact and the computing power. So if we manage to have the smartest people in one agency working on these things, hopefully that will, in the end, also make it easier to have legislation on these kinds of aspects that can be more easily enforced. But it's an uphill battle.

Gael Duez 36:11
So I got it about the digital agency enforcing those regulations. And yes, that's definitely something that could be done. And actually just bouncing back on what Max said about intellectual property, Airbus has a lot of intellectual property also on how they make their plane flight. And still you do have a lot of controllers coming and checking everything. So I think this IP stuff is full of bullshit. Once you've got accredited people, and under the oath people, they should have access to everything. This idea of, like, a business secret is just complete nonsense. Business secrets stop when sustainability matters, human rights matters.

Max Schulze 36:52
I agree with you completely, Kim said it very nicely. Who cares right now? When you sit in a plane, you want the plane to be safe. And you look at your government, you elect the government, say, like, you better make sure those planes are safe, because otherwise I'm going to die. With tech, most of society today I mean, I try to have a lot of discussions with people who are not at all in tech and try to really understand how they're thinking about it. And, I mean, they're getting a lot of their truths, their information. They're getting a lot of pleasure out of modern technology. And it's a little bit like asking somebody who really likes the smoke to advocate for stopping the tobacco industry. And it's very hard to explain that there is somehow a safety risk because it doesn't feel like a plane, but there is. I mean, if you see the humps of children these days from holding the phone and scrolling TikTok, I cry, I'm a father. How do I protect my children from this? And unfortunately, I'm not in that part of advocacy. I wish I could be, but I really think, like, I mean, just the safety risk is so visible in our children. And it's not this argument, like, oh, you know, you're old now. You know, back then it was the same with TVs. Everybody said it's bad for you, but it's not that bad for you. But look, there are physical people who have these dumb things. They have this hump. Even the Chinese government is outlawing a certain amount of gaming. It's obvious that there is something, something there.

Kim Van Sparrentak 38:21
I'm working a lot on addictive design of mobile phones, and it is psychological tricks and manipulative tricks that they are putting in our mobile devices, in social media, which is harmful, and we have to do something about it. Check out addictive design and what we did on that in the European Parliament. I'm very proud that I led the work on that.

Gael Duez 38:40
I'd like to jump on the last one because you mentioned the light bubble of data centers. But actually, I know that both of you worked quite a lot also on data center regulation. And Max, you were specifically involved with the SDIA on the European Energy efficiency directive from the European Union. Why did you invest so much energy into this specific battle?

Max Schulze 39:05
So, tech, really, from an environmental science perspective, is all the environmental impact of the digital world is in its physical infrastructure, in servers, phones, devices, data centers, these buildings. So that's one. 

The other thing is, it's a lot easier to get people what we just discussed to care if it's a physical thing. And so I advocate a lot for the transparency of the environmental impact of data centers. So we can essentially create more outrage because every single time, a number comes out of how much water, how much energy, how much of the Dutch, for example, renewable energy goes into this infrastructure, the more people are making that connection between, well, we have this massive pile of digital technology that I actually don't really like that much. And somehow a third of my country's energy goes there. Why? That's for me, why I invest so much energy in there, because I find there a storytelling lever, and I need that data to be public. I need to really rip it open so that we can then do real advocacy at the moment, like, in the absence of facts, I find it very hard. 

I'm not a former US president who invents facts. I would like the facts to be transparent and public, and then I can do advocacy with those facts. And that's why I'm so much behind this energy efficiency directive. And unfortunately, in the current version, most of the facts that I need are not public. Again, they have managed to make it only visible to the commission, which is progress, but they're not public.

Gael Duez 40:48
And what are these numbers that you were looking for?

Max Schulze 40:53
So, actually, the list of metrics that was developed in this directive is very comprehensive. It goes all the way down to the hardware being used, how rare minerals and metals are in there, how much traffic goes in and out, energy, water. Everything we have dreamed of is in that list. But what's public is only the effectiveness of how they're using it. So imagine a financial statement of a company only showing you profit margin, but not revenue and cost. And then they're saying, like, look, we're fine. We're having a 30% margin. How much money you're making, can't tell you.

Gael Duez 41:30
Making things visible is a very smart approach, especially when you said it countless times in this episode, that transparency is key. But once transparency is done, that needs to be also accessible and understandable by people. So I got it. In talking about transparency, how these laws are made for real, how does it work? Specifically, what are these lobbyists? And actually, Max, you acknowledge to be considered as one of them, so that's pretty cool, but maybe if you're more an activist than a lobbyist. But how does it work?

Kim Van Sparrentak 42:08
Let me start by saying lobbyists are not per se bad. I think it is actually quite a crucial part of politics, to be honest, because they give us precious information and insights in certain things, also in industries that make us better lawmakers. But there is a limit. And the limit is, of course, first of all, making sure we have a bit of a level playing field. And the fact that €100 million
 a year is spent by big tech lobbyists in Brussels doesn't really give a level playing field to people who are not trying to fight for big techs. Right? So that is really a very problematic part. And if you want to know how exactly laws are made, no one really knows. But we do know that there's a very big chunk of big tech companies trying to influence these laws and trying to make sure that people decide not to put forward certain things or try to make sure that certain companies or certain systems are exempted from legislation. Just to give you an idea of what kind of things I see, maybe, from lobbies. 

So first of all, of course, I get the emails with, we would like to talk with you, and this is our position paper. Then I can have talks with lobbyists where they tell me, for example, Amazon, that they are the most sustainable company in the world. But also sometimes, actually, I also have interesting conversations to learn a bit more on how their systems actually work and what kind of different departments they have working on different, different ideas or different parts of companies. But then that's the formal part. That's the formal part of lobbies. 

Then the informal part is that they help produce reports or their lawyers produce reports, and suddenly it says something about a big tech company in a newsletter that everyone in the European bubble reads based on a seemingly independent report. But then if you look, it's actually the lawyer who also represents the big tech company who wrote it, or it's a call from startups for tech, which sounds very nice. You know, we want to help European startups. Turns out that they've all been sponsored by Google, and what they're saying is actually what Google wants. When you walk around the European district, almost all the billboards are filled with big tech company ads saying how they're going to protect children, how they will protect the environment, how they will protect democracies. When you turn on a podcast in the European parliament, usually the first ad you hear is Google does everything right. So it's a lot more than that. And I think what is important to understand is that it in general doesn't influence, I think the people who are really at the core of working on this legislation, to some extent they might the rapporteurs and the shadow rapporteurs, but it's especially the people in their political groups that don't know anything about the topic that are influenced and then try to have a say in how the group votes in the end. And those are the ones that then have, that the lobbyists have an influence on. So that makes it very difficult.

Gael Duez 45:31
The 100 million budget spent by big tech companies. Is it a firm number or an estimation? What does it come from?

Kim Van Sparrentak 45:39
I think it's a firm number. It comes from a Corporate Observatory in Europe. They do very, very good research on all the different lobbyists.

Gael Duez 45:47
Shouldn't we have a way to differentiate a scientific report from all the other reports? And the scientific reports being something published by people with non financial links, plus, peer reviewed, plus, plus. And isn't it the main transparency battle, the mother of all battles is that you cannot call a scientific study something that is not scientific. And actually it should even be made compulsory to say, this is an unscientific report.

Kim Van Sparrentak 46:15
There are scientific reports made by very smart professors that did that in their university. And turns out when you really look into them, that they're also on the advisory board of a big tech company. So we had one example when it was about the Digital Services Act and how we should deal with targeted advertising. There was a report. If you actually read the report, it was quite damning for the big tech companies. And it was actually like, you could have read it as a strong call for stronger regulation. But when you read the summary and when the professor came to explain the report… No, there was not really a need for regulation. And, you know, then you really have a problem. Then you have a professor that has done independent research, but the message they're conveying is actually blurred by big tech influence. And this is really a problem we're having. And that's also why it's actually a lot of work. When you get an email from someone or when you get requested for a meeting by certain organizations, you really have to, I always really have to go through their websites to see, but who are they actually representing? And that's that. And that becomes more blurry all the time. And every time they come up with new tricks, which is very frustrating.

Max Schulze 47:43
To go even deeper, we were talking about the AI Act. I was at the German AI campus, which is like a government, state funded mega facility together with the Max Planck Institutes, and I talked to the professors that everybody's doing a collaborative project with Google right now, and this is state funded. And I'm like, okay, and then they say things like, oh, any process that we digitize is by nature more energy efficient. That's a physically correct statement, but that's not really how reality looks like, does it? 

And I think we have technology, we have a power delta problem, the same as we knew with the tobacco industry and we same, we knew with the oil industry that there's just so much money and they're just everywhere and when Kim says 100 million, we're talking about direct spending on lobbying. We're not talking about working with the different municipalities in every country, making sure that Ireland feels like, hey, we're bringing jobs to you, and in return, we want your vote. They're everywhere, and they have so much money available to them to do that. And what we did with tobacco and all, at some point we said, hey, in the Netherlands, the tobacco industry cannot lobby. And I'm not saying that's the way it needs to go, but we can have the tech sector lobby. But there is a certain scale of the company that is as a civil society organization. I represent society. I can tell you I cannot compete. Even if every European citizen would give me a euro a year as a donation, my budget would still be just barely on par with the big top five lobbyists together, just to put that in your mind. But then comes the geopolitical angle. We can't piss off the Americans. Then the US government calls and says, well, we would like you to stop bullying our tech companies.

Gael Duez 49:30
And how do you do on a daily basis dealing with this frustration, Max? Because we had some success in regulations. I mean, we've listed quite a lot of them. So somehow we managed to get through some of these hurdles.

Max Schulze 49:46
Kim said it. We just need society to be aware. That's it. That's where my energy comes from. The more I get people to be aware, the happy I am that I can be on this podcast, Gaël. That you build this platform is amazing because it touches more people. And eventually there will be a momentum shift. And once we have that momentum shift, everything will change. But to create the momentum shift, there needs to be people like us that push.

Gael Duez 50:11
I think that's nice closing words to describe why we've launched the Green IO podcast and all the other related events. I like to ask this very simple question to close the podcast. Can you share some good news? Something that really uplifted you when it comes to sustainability, even better if it's digital sustainability.

Kim Van Sparrentak 50:35
One of the things that has given me a lot of hope is going to the Make Amazon Pay Conference in Manchester in November. And there, it was so amazing to see how trade unions, environmental groups, indigenous people rights groups, digital rights groups, policymakers, I must forget other groups that are involved there. All are working together to make sure that a massive corporate moguls such as Amazon becomes more sustainable and will be held accountable. And it's so cool to see that groups from all different aspects are working together on this. So that really, really gives me hope. It also means, you know, it also shows how much work it is that we need people from every angle. But, yeah, that's something that really gives me hope.

Max Schulze 51:30
Yeah. And for me, the positive thing is we talked a lot about the 100 million being spent, but it means something really positive. It means that Europe is considered to get the job done, to embody values in our digital world. And that's why everybody's here. That's why the battleground is in Brussels and all over Europe. But it means that people know that European citizens care about this and we will get it done. We're showing that we have teeth and we will get it done. And we need, just as citizens, to remain active and engaged. That's really important.

Gael Duez 52:03
Well, that was a nice closing word. So thanks, both of you, for your very precious time to enlighten a bit how it works in the European Union political system. The different legislations, we didn't cover all of them. We didn't talk about CSRD, we didn't talk about taxonomy. But hey, that would be, maybe that would have required a fully other episode. But thanks, both of you. Talk to you soon, hopefully. Bye.

Thank you for listening to this Green IO episode. I hope it has strengthened your decision to vote in the next European election by illustrating the pivotal role of European institutions, starting with the parliament. 

If you are convinced about it and enjoy the discussion, please share it massively around you. And of course, don't forget to give us 5 stars on Apple and Spotify if this is not already done. It will give our little team, Jill, Meibel, Tani and I, a nice booster. 

In our next episode, we will welcome Yannick Aliola, Green Code author, and Sato Heikinhaimo, the founder of the Planet Diplomat Initiative, to get a Nordics angle on digital sustainability. Stay tuned! Green IO is a podcast and much more. So visit to subscribe to our free monthly newsletter, read the latest articles on our blog and check the conferences we organize across the globe. The next one is in London on September 19th. Early bird tickets are available until June 18th. Even better for you as a Green IO listener, you can get a free ticket using the Voucher GREENIOVIP. I'm looking forward to meeting you there to help you, fellow responsible technologists, build a greener digital world. 

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