Rep. Jim McDermott Adds One More Layer of Guilt to Being a High-Tech Consumer

It's not just diamonds you should feel bad about buying.
And you thought that giving your fiancee a sapphire engagement ring after watching Blood Diamond would be enough to make you a socially conscious consumer. Sorry, but no.

Today our globally-conscious Representative Jim McDermott introduced the Conflict Minerals Trade Act to track where the minerals that make up the components of our cell phones, laptops and iPods come from. That's because, according to a non-profit called Raise Hope for Congo, over 5 million people have died in fighting to control the mines that produce those minerals.

Not everyone has a big rock on their left hand, but almost all of us chat on a cell phone, check e-mail at Stumptown on a laptop, and keep an iPod on hand to block out people on the bus. For those devices to work, they need tin for the circuit boards, a mineral called coltan to hold an electrical charge, and tungsten for the component that makes the vibrating feature work. "There's so much that we use every day that has some derivation of these [minerals]," McDermott spokesperson Mike DeCesare says.

All three of those minerals--along with gold, used in both electronics and jewelry (there are those ethically compromised rings again)--are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to Raise Hope, trading in those minerals is worth $144 million to whoever controls the mines. And with the money has come armed conflict.

To that end, McDermott's legislation [pdf], co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, would create a map of mines that are likely funding the fighting in the Congo.

Companies making products like computers and cell phones would then be able certify that the minerals in their products don't come from those mines. The Secretary of Commerce, our own Gary Locke, would be responsible for compiling a "Potential Conflict Goods List." That would put the onus on us to buy certified products and keep blood cell phones out of our pockets.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association released a statement today praising McDermott's legislation. It's not really the kind of thing that's politically feasible to oppose. But the CTIA notes that in addition to putting more responsibility on their businesses for supporting human rights worldwide, by including the map and list, the bill would "give CTIA's members additional tools as they seek to ensure that they are sourcing from 'conflict free' sources."

But until some system of certification is in place, the best we consumers can do is wonder: "is the cell phone buzzing in my pocket a call from a dear friend or a cry for help from the millions of people suffering for the sake of my ability to make last minute happy hour plans?"

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