Cheap computers and conflict minerals

I originally published the following note on nettime and Facebook. I have included it in this blog because of its relevance to its topic, and added a couple of important updates:

Powerful computers are getting unbelievably cheap and small: It’s a fact we witness everyday. Many of you may have heard about the Raspberry Pi: a $25 “credit-card sized computer” that plugs into a tv and a keyboard. it uses an ARM processor and comes with a GNU/Linux OS.

According to the manufacturers, the idea behind this ultra-cheap computer is to make it available for kids everywhere in the world. While i don’t doubt their good intentions, i believe the time has come to ask questions about the material nature of our devices, no matter how big, small, cheap or expensive they are. As many of you also know, computers are getting cheaper and more powerful partly because of certain minerals, such as tantalum or tungsten, which make the miniaturization of circuits possible. but these two minerals, together with others, are considered to be “conflictive”, because of many reasons. The best known case is Coltan (a metallic ore from which tantalum is extracted) mined in Eastern Congo under brutal conditions, both for communities and the environment. If this issue sounds new to you, a good place to get more information is the Enough Project. But conflicts are not limited neither to the Eastern Congo or Coltan alone. Take gold, for example, which is used in various electronic circuits because of its conductivity, malleability and resistance to corrosion. in Tanzania, the world’s third largest producer of gold, multiple violations to human rights and damages to the local environment have been documented because of careless mining.

There is, without question, a link between our small, cheap computers and the brutal damage we are doing to poor, voiceless communities and the environment.

So, i tried to do some basic research about the Raspberry pi. It uses a Broadcom bcm2835 SoC (system-on-a-chip)… according to a company engagement report made by the “ethical bank” Triodos in 2011, Broadcom corp. was uneligible for partnership because of their negative performance regarding conflict minerals. Broadcom doesn’t seem to have much to say about that on their corporate responsibility page. This research was the fruit of an afternoon’s googling, so i can’t make any claims about it. Thus, I figured I should ask the makers of the Raspberry Pi directly. On march 14, I asked the following question on their FAQ page:

“how do you ensure that the suppliers you are working with (arm, broadcom and others) are ethically responsible? more concretely, how do you know they are not using conflict minerals to manufacture the components you buy from them? the raspberry pi is a great initiative, and it would be shame to learn that the technology involved is not 100% ethically responsible.”

I didn’t get a reply, even if the people who manage the webpage are actively replying to most of the questions. I believe my question is respectful and legitimate, and that it deserves an answer.

If you also believe that asking about the materials used to make our cheap devices is important, I invite you to turn the “q” into a “faq”. Ask the question, using your own words of course, on their faq page. Insist until we all get a satisfactory reply. It’s not about attacking the Raspberry Pi or any other company: It’s about raising awareness about what’s happening at the other end of technology. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to what’s going on out there. It’s not a time for being (only) enthusiastic: it’s a time for asking questions.

UPDATES: Some people answered to this call and, sadly, we all got very aggressive replies. The most “reasonable” one said that the Raspberry Pi shouldn’t be singled out in the case of conflict minerals, because it’s a small computer and thus uses smaller amounts of those materials. Here is a selection of the most interesting interventions on the FAQ page:

I was wondering about the ethical stance of Rasberry Pi with regard to sourcing components? In their reply, the manufacturers try to dismiss the subject, saying they can’t do anything about it and, thus, they just ignore the issue.

I believe we deserve an answer: What is your stance on conflict minerals built into the Raspberry Pi? This question got a particularly aggressive reply. These people should check their marketing strategies… [UPDATE: my replies were deleted. In them, I said that yes, we deserve an answer for the simple reason that we are were potential buyers of the Raspberry Pi.]

But the efforts have not been in vain. An “ethical policy” discussion was opened in the Raspberry Pi’s forum. Perhaps we can coax a corporate responsibility statement from them… Stay tuned!

UPDATE (from Tom Keene, 17/04/2012):
Inspired by your original post, I made an attempt to start a discussion here:

Sadly I got a lot of abuse from other forum members (about 15 messages
were deleted) and sarcastic/warning remarks from one of the admins
which essentially shut the discussion down.

UPDATE: Richard Hall has written “A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi”. Read it in his blog.

UPDATE: As of May 18th 2012 (probably a few days earlier), the Raspberry Pi’s FAQ page was closed to public comments. We can’t say whether their decision was based on the uncomfortable comments about conflict minerals lying there. But, in any case, it might have been a good decision on their part. A very intense debate around the Dodd-Frank section in the US is going on, and companies are now required to find out where their suppliers come from. So, Raspberry Pi probably made an intelligent move… it’s not nice being caught with your pants down!