The top underreported tech stories of 2009

The iPhone, Oracle’s Sun buyout, and Windows 7 dominated the year’s tech news. Discover the key events that fell under the media radar

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2009 top underreported technology stories:

2. "Conflict minerals" in your PC and cell phone fuel civil war in Congo

It's not often that the technology industry, human rights activists, and both parties in the U.S. Congress are on the same page. But in 2009, the long-running horror story in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- where the mining of coltan, tungsten, and other minerals crucial to the manufacture of cell phones has fueled a series of bloody civil wars -- has moved significant players to action.

Late last month, Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, a bill aimed at slowing the importation of products made with "conflict minerals." In essence, the House bill (and a similar effort in the Senate) requires companies along the supply chain to prove that materials they use are not coming from mines controlled by warlords in Congo. The cost of verification and inspections, which will include onsite visits to mines and refineries, will be borne by technology companies.

Coltan is the short name for the mineral ore columbite-tantalite, from which the element tantalum, a key ingredient of capacitors, is refined. Tantalum capacitors are used in a range of electronic applications, including cell phones and PCs. Tin, another conflict mineral, is an ingredient of solder paste.

For all its importance, coltan is still mined in much the same way that gold was extracted from the hills of California in 1848. Laborers, many of whom are children, chip away chunks of rock with hand tools, then wash the rubble to separate coltan from useless minerals. It can take as much as two days to collect a few ounces of coltan and earn the equivalent of about $10. Naturally, prices rise as the coltan moves up the supply chain, and significant profits are siphoned off by warlords who use the money to buy arms.

It's not hard to understand why this issue has stayed below the radar. Stories about atrocities and suffering in Africa are so commonplace that without a feasible way to make a difference, Americans tend to sigh and move on.

Until now, even consumers and companies that wanted to avoid the use of "conflict minerals" had trouble identifying where and how they were mined. Given the pervasive use of those mineral in electronics, it simply isn't feasible to boycott them. And companies sincerely wanting to buy components built with conflict-free minerals could not unravel the lengthy and obscure supply chain that leads from mines in the Congo to refineries and manufacturers around the world and ultimately to the United States.

To address that, the House bill mandates penalties for companies that knowingly or carelessly file false declarations regarding importation of goods tainted with "conflict minerals." But with the exceptions of two U.S. coltan refiners that would be banned from importing the mineral from the conflict zone, there is no bar to the importation of goods using "conflict minerals," as long as the use is disclosed. Ultimately, it's a "name and shame" effort that supporters hope will give ammunition to consumers and manufacturers wishing to help stem the violence in Congo.

Among the technology companies and associations that have publicly supported the McDermott-Wolf bill are Motorola, Research in Motion, and Hewlett-Packard, which is already pushing suppliers on this issue.

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