Are you there Google? It’s me

As an engineer and environmentalist, I have a love/hate relationship with technology.  While i appreciate gadgets with elegant design and convenient features, I get really worked up about built-in obsolescence.  In general,  I tend to stick with what I have instead of indulging in the shiny new.

This past fall, when the G1 phone came out, I have to admit I was intrigued.  I’ve been carrying around a really crappy low-tech cel phone for the past 4 years.  How wonderful would it be to be able to access google things (gmail, maps, picassa, contacts…) anywhere–a pocket google, plus have all the fancy camera and video capabilities my current phone is lacking.  I could instant blog!

But i couldn’t get too excited just yet.  There is after all,  a reason I’ve been holding on to this old phone.  It’s not just the fate of electronic discards that is of concern, it’s also the production.   Coltan–a metal also known as Tantalum– is a common ingredient found in electronic gadgetry especially cel phones.   Coltan mining in the the Democratic Republic of Congo started booming earlier this decade with the rapid increase in short lived electronic devices.   There have been several articles and reports linking this activity with threats to gorilla and other wildlife habitats.  Furthermore, the coltan trade may be fueling fueding factions in Congo’s civil war.  Children are often involved in combat or in mining.

Nokia, a seemingly socially responsible Scandinavian company, has been one of the first to address this issue:

Nokia is not buying tantalum or other raw materials but processed components and assemblies from suppliers around the world.  Nokia does not use any endangered species for any business purpose and furthermore requests that its suppliers avoid raw material procurement from an origin where there are clear human or animal rights abuse, or the method of procurement or distribution is illegal. In marketing and other company activities,  Nokia will depict animals in a dignified manner.

Nokia has sent a notification of the Congo situation to its suppliers using Tantalum asking them to follow the situation, and to avoid purchasing tantaum from Congo.  Nokia is also reducing the use of tantalum in its products.

While this is encouraging,  it doesn’t provide enough comfort that a Nokia phone is conflict free.

This fall when the G1 came out,  escalated violence in the Congo was also occuring.   Some news outlets took it as an opportunity to readdress the role of Coltan in the Conflict.  ” Blood Cells” started making the connection that along with diamonds and timber, this metal is funding conflict.  This article tried to explain “How the Mobile Phone is helping to pay  for the Civil War in the Congo”

But it’s still hard to tell where the coltan in your phone comes from, whether it is the DRC or Australia or somewhere else.

I emailed HTC, the manufacturer of the G1 phone to find out.   The first response wasn’t all that revealing.  From Milo:

Thank you for your inquiry about the T-Mobile. We are so excited to hear that you are interested in the manufactured by us, however for all you’re questions that you may have about this device, you will need to contact T-Mobile for assistance as we do not support this device. I hope we have answered your question in detail. Feel free to contact us again if you have any further questions.

I emailed back saying my question is a manufacturing question not a service question.  Here’s the response from Jonathan:

Thank you for your inquiry about where the Coltan was mined. We understand the importance of having all the information on our phones. Unfortunately, we do not have the information that you are wanting on Coltan. The only department that knows of this information is our corporate officein Taiwan. There contact information is under the “Contact Us” link on our worldwide website. I hope we have answered your question in detail. Feel free to contact us again if you have any further questions.

I tried again asking for them to forward my request to Taiwan.  Here is William V’s response:

Thank you for your inquiry about where we get our raw materials. I have looked into sending your email to Taiwan, however we are unable to do this. The only contact information that we have pertaining to our Taiwan offices are what are located on our Contact Us page on the website (address, phone and fax numbers).

I also researched into the coltan issue and, although we do not know where we get the coltan our phones use here in Tech Support, I was able to find our that less than 1% of the world coltan comes from the Congo and that most of it come from Australia. I do hope that this information puts your mind at ease, but if it does not then please feel free to contact our Taiwan offices with the information on our Contact Us page. I hope we have answered your question in detail. Feel free to contact us again if you have any further questions.

This did not put my mind at ease. I’ve read other stats about 80 percent of Coltan coming from DRC or 80 percent coming from Africa and 80 percent of that coming from DRC.   I tried another time.  This time Ryan responded:

Thank you for your inquiry about the use of Coltan.I understand how important it is for you to know the source of Coltan in our products. I can see how your source of information would concern you as to the amount of Coltan that originates in the Republic of Congo. I will be glad to request this information for you, and will actually forward your email higher than the Technical Support department. I agree that manufacturers should be aware of their material sources. I hope we have answered your question in detail. Feel free to contact us again if you have any further questions.

That email was from November 10 and no updates from Ryan.  I decided to email Google directly. Now i realize they are more the software programming for this phone and probably don’t have a lot to do with manufacturing of this phone.  But given their supposed “do no evil” policy and the fact that google is the bearer of all information, surely they might know where the Coltan from the G1 phone comes from, and surely they might care  given the social and environmental responsibility layers on google earth, that address primate habitats and genocide locations.   Perhaps even the next big google project could be a supply chain tracking network for all sorts of projects.

No word from G yet.

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~ by sangamithra on December 29, 2008.

2 Responses to “Are you there Google? It’s me”

  1. Hi,
    Congratulations. If every mobile phone user did what you´ve just told us, things would be a lot different. Thanks a lot for that. If you want to find more info on coltan and tin, my blog will be useful to you:

    http://stopthewarinnorthkivu.wordpress.com

    all the best,

    an humanitarian worker in Goma,DRC

    PS: I´m not vegan, but quite close to being a vegetarian

  2. thank you…very much 😉

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