Intel has found itself in hot water over its apparent opposition to US legislation outlawing materials gained from a central Africa war zone.
IT companies and mobile phone makers have been accused of fuelling civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by buying components made using raw materials from mines in the country.
A number of minerals - cobalt, gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten - are involved in the traffic, although most attention has centred on the black, tar-like mineral columbite-tantalite, known as 'coltan'.
Coltan is a vital ingredient in the capacitors used in mobile phones, laptops and other electronic devices. Over 80 per cent of the world's coltan reserves are found in the DRC. Many mines, particularly in the east of the country, are under the control of armed groups.
The UN Security Council has described the trade in conflict minerals as “the world’s leading example of the financial losses and human suffering caused by illegal trafficking in natural resources.’’
In an attempt to halt the trade, US congressman Jim McDermott introduced the Conflict Minerals Trade Bill last November, requiring manufacturers to trace the raw materials used in their products – and policing the system with a network of independent auditors.
Explaining the need for his Bill, McDermott said that armed groups were, "simply stealing ore and selling it to the international market – and everyone who has a cellphone has a piece of the action.’’
While Intel says it supports the aims of the Bill, critics have accused the company of lobbying attempts to undermine the legislation.
A spokesman for UK charity Global Witness, which campaigns on the issue of conflict minerals, told THINQ today: "We think companies like Intel are not making nearly enough effort. The problem is that they don't ask the questions."
"The Conflict Minerals Trade Act is necessary," the spokesman added. "So much money is going into the wrong hands that something must be done. We are not calling for an embargo on minerals from the DRC, but materials must come from mines that are in the hands of civilians so that money doesn't end up with armed groups."
Intel has been accused of stifling dissent after its Facebook page was hit by a wave of comments last week in support of a protest by activists outside the company's Ronler Acres site in Oregon.
Initially, critical comments were deleted and further comments were barred. A rethink saw the remarks reinstated and further commenting reopened, with Intel making the following statement: "We'd like to apologize for deleting some comments and briefly shutting down the page for comments. Our intent wasn’t to silence the valuable opinions of our Fans."
In a statement explaining its position on the Bill, Intel said: "[We] support the objective of US legislation to address this problem. We want to be certain that the legislation will be implementable, achieve real change in the mineral supply chains and not result in an unintended ban of legitimate trade from the DRC."
Commenting on Intel's response, Lisa Shannon, the organiser of the Ronler Acres protest, asked: "Do you plan to take full responsibility for your supply chain? Guarantee it? That is the objective of the legislation."
Dismissing Intel's fears that the law was unworkable, Shannon added: "Hewlett Packard stated - in the room with Intel, Motorola, and ITIC [the Information Technology Industry Council] – said that the bill in its fully enforceable state will cost less than one cent per product, and termed the expense 'negligible'. It is not a disputed number. Are you willing to pay - or charge consumers - that extra penny to save Congolese lives?"
Experts admit that tracing minerals from their exact source to Intel's fabrication plants is not an easy one, but have questioned the company's existing efforts.
Minerals industry news site MetalMiner this week said: "This is not about an evil corporation trying to exploit children or tacitly supporting human rights atrocities thousands of miles away," but added: "Funding a study to define the metals involved, seeking the input of NGOs or posting a statement on a corporate website hardly represent compelling activities."
Intel was not available to comment on its policy regarding the use of conflict minerals from the DRC, but in a statement accompanying its Corporate Social Responsibility report, released last week, the chip giant said: " We are working diligently with our suppliers, customers, NGOs, and other stakeholders to establish systems and processes that will enable us to declare with confidence that our products do not contain materials from conflict sources."