Facebook is to build a new server farm on the edge of the Arctic Circle — its first outside the United States — to improve performance for European users, officials of the social networking site said Thursday.
It will also expose them to potential eavesdropping from a Swedish intelligence agency, according to Sweden's Pirate Party, a group opposing government interference with the internet.
Facebook confirmed Thursday it had reviewed potential locations across Europe and decided on the northern Swedish city of Lulea for the data center partly because of the cold climate — crucial for keeping the servers cool — and access to renewable energy from nearby hydropower facilities.
The move reflects the growing international presence of the California-based site, which counts 800 million users worldwide.
"Facebook has more users outside the U.S. than inside," Facebook director of site operations Tom Furlong told The Associated Press. "It was time for us to expand in Europe."
He said European users would get better performance from having a node for data traffic closer to them. Facebook currently stores data at sites in California, Virginia and Oregon and is building another facility in North Carolina.
Surveillance risk warning
The small Swedish Pirate Party, which is not represented in Parliament, warned that placing the servers in Lulea would also expose European users to eavesdropping from Sweden's National Defence Radio Establishment, also known by its Swedish initials FRA.
The agency can conduct surveillance on telephone conversations and data traffic to and from Sweden under legislation designed to fight cross-border terrorism and crime, which raised strong protests from privacy activists when it was passed in 2008.
Google's global privacy council Peter Fleischer called it "the most privacy-invasive legislation in Europe."
Jan Fredriksson, a spokesman for Facebook in Sweden, said the company was confident that restrictions on the agency's surveillance activities would protect the integrity of regular Facebook users.
"This isn't something that will affect users," Frediksson said. "Only people who are strongly suspected of terrorism can become subjected to this."
Facebook is facing its own privacy concerns in Europe over how long it retains users' information and other issues.
"Facebook isn't famous for caring about its users integrity, so they didn't care about it in this case either," Pirate Party leader Anna Troberg said.
FRA spokeswoman Anni Boelenius said the agency only conducts surveillance against specific threats to Sweden, including cyber security, Swedish troops abroad and the military capabilities of foreign powers.
"The surveillance is aimed at these phenomena and not against specific services or means of communication," she said.
The Lulea data center, which will consist of three 28,000-square metre server buildings, is scheduled for completion by 2014.
The site will need 120 MW of energy, fully derived from hydropower.
Located 100 kilometres south of the Arctic Cicle, Lulea lies near hydropower stations on a river that generates twice as much electricity as the Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona, Facebook said.
In case of a blackout, construction designs call for each building to have 14 backup diesel generators with a total output of 40 MW.
Construction could cost $760 million
Facebook didn't give the price of its investment, but Lulea officials have previously projected construction costs of up to $760 million. The Swedish government said it was ready to pitch in with $16 million.
"We knocked on doors at Facebook's head office (in Palo Alto, California) and today they're moving in to Lulea — this is huge, really huge," said Matz Engman, who heads the Lulea Business Agency, a public-private partnership working to attract businesses to the region.
With winter temperatures well below freezing and summertime highs that rarely climb above 25 C, Lulea has used its frigid climate as a selling point in its efforts to establish itself as a hub for server farms. Other Nordic cities have adopted similar strategies.
In 2009 Google purchased a paper mill in Hamina, southern Finland, and turned it into a data center, using seawater from the Baltic Sea for its cooling system.
Servers inside data centers are the backbone of internet services such as Facebook. The servers store and transmit billions of status updates, links, photos and all the outside apps used by Facebook's members.