Ireland is in a unique position in Europe when it comes to how the internet works and grows. While much of the national perception of the relationship between Big Tech and Ireland is focused on employment and the various companies headquartered here, Ireland’s place in the regulatory and physical infrastructure of the internet is far more fundamental. This involves data centres, content moderation operations and undersea cables. The regulatory context mostly centres around the significance of Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) in an EU context. The Irish DPC holds major responsibility for regulating the data regimes of tech companies because they are headquartered here. As Big Tech expanded, our tax regime facilitated the generation of incredible profits for American tech companies. So Ireland matters a lot when it comes to the internet, but perhaps not in the way people think.
This perception of a small country’s role in the global internet has been moulded by the free PR Irish politicians do on behalf of tech companies. Indeed, plenty of people in the Kildare Street orbit go on to become tech lobbyists. Politicians love visiting the shiny HQs of tech companies, but we tend not to hear them wax lyrical about content moderation, which employs thousands of people as contractors on low pay in Ireland. This is probably because moderation is difficult and stressful work that happens very much away from the spotlight, and the toll it takes on workers engaged in appraising violent and offensive material is huge. Not exactly a PR win for a smiling TD.
Meanwhile, the public messaging on data centres from government politicians oscillates between inane and deluded. At the centre of this tornado of government spin on behalf of the data centre industry has been an attempt to convince the public that their presence anchors tech employment in Ireland. The ongoing rounds of lay-offs across the tech sector undercuts this position quite blatantly. In one bout of hilarity from Leo Varadkar, he equated data to diamonds, as though Ireland had suddenly stumbled upon some incredible natural resource. The data centre industry is extractive when it comes to energy. What it generates is money for those involved. Paschal Donohoe and Heather Humphreys rarely stray from pro-data centre industry messaging.
One might think: what’s the problem? Besides the occasional – and well-warranted – freak-outs from those concerned about how data centres are speeding towards accounting for one third of our electricity demand, surely all this just makes us important? It does. But we also know that hybrid warfare is another innovative sector, and one that targets weak spots. When Russian ships were bobbing off our west coast recently, curiously close to the sites of undersea cables, it’s hard to believe that they were merely admiring the pollock.
Data centres and subsea cables present obvious security concerns considering their importance to the flow of global digital communication. Ireland now finds itself in a position where we have an abundance of private infrastructure with complex public security concerns.
Iris is a subsea cable that connects Iceland to the rest of northern Europe through Ireland, a connection running from Galway Bay to Thorlakshofn, at a distance of 1,700 kilometres. Eamon Ryan rightly characterised this cable as part of “the new industrial revolution.” It’s a revolution that is largely going unseen, despite the fact that the massive roll-out of data centres in Ireland represents a phenomenal level of industrial development (but without the jobs), particularly given the impact on our energy capacity, security, and climate targets. “Ireland is now open for business to further subsea cables,” Ryan’s Green Party colleague Ossian Smyth said when Iris was launched. Last year, the Aqua Comms’ AEC-2 cable, connecting the US to Denmark, landed at Mayo. The Celtic Norse cable will connect Ireland to Norway. Smyth has also been pursuing subsea cable projects with the governments of Spain and Portugal.
Another part of this industrial revolution is the ownership of wind farms by tech companies in Ireland. Amazon owns a wind farm in Cork – a landmark project, as it was the first wind farm to be built here without public subsidies – and two more in Galway and Donegal. Meta has a deal with a wind farm in Tipperary: Lisheen III. Amazon is planning more data centres in north Dublin. Twenty-one new data centres are planned for outside Dublin. The outcome of new EU guidelines, published in March, that will require data centres to make their energy performance publicly available will be incredibly interesting.
In this context, much of the discussion around Ireland’s neutrality misses the mark. Because of the policies pursued by government to transform us into a “data island” (Smyth’s words), while not simultaneously bolstering our capacity to protect our waters and the cables that lie beneath them, it is inevitable that we will be become ever more reliant on entities that can help us out – be that the Royal Navy, Nato or both. This is, after all, a country whose entire health service’s IT system collapsed over the opening an email. When it comes to the broader security of Data Island, the waters look increasingly choppy.