An idea that won’t work

The recent story by The Sunday Times about the energy cost of using Google for a search seems to have been revealed as an exaggeration. We'll have to wait a while and see which people remember more - the correction or the original inaccurate claim:

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.

That's not just wrong – it's obviously wrong. The Times eventually added a few extra words to their original article that tried to clarify what they actually meant, but it still looks like a case of people trying to use statistics who shouldn't be using them. The fact that this article created such a stir may tell us that one of the ways proposed to combat spam may be impractical due to environmental concerns. This is the idea that one way to stop spam is to force senders of email to pay a tax in the form of lots of computation when they send an email.

The problem is, of course, that the computation that would be needed to send an email could also be quantified in terms of carbon dioxide. Imagine the uproar if the following was claimed about this anti-spam technique:

Sending a single email can generate the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling two gallons of water, according to new research.

So it certainly looks like the idea of paying tax in computing power won't fly as a means of preventing spam these days. It's never been a very popular idea, but it certainly looks like the anti-spam researchers need to come up with another idea or two.

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