I Want an Ethical Smartphone: Conflict Minerals, The Environment, & Your Privacy
5th of May, 2016
If you’re anything like me, you have seriously conflicting opinions about your mobile device. On one side, my phone is easily my closest companion, keeping me connected at all times. I have the luxury of––and feel the pressure to–– instantaneously reply to all incoming messages. Yes, from this side of the fence, I see my smartphone as an essential tool for modern society. But then, there is the other side: a far darker and sadder reality of what a new smartphone in the hands of every man, woman, teen–– and even child–– means. That being, as we travel through our day, minds narrowed in the approximate 5-inch display that some would claim holds the sum of their entire existence, what we really hold is a device created from the suffering of another being: we hold a tool born out of systems of oppression, environmental damage, and human rights violations that, as consumers, we fuel by financing the machine.
Often, we are unaware of how to separate the dissonant sides of our devices. So we choose, in the way choices are usually made, to force ourselves to push the ethical questions aside, ignore the issues that happen in a place far enough away that we don’t have to see them, and choose instead–– like children–– the option that immediately gratifies us. And while we don’t (often) blame each other for the choice we make as consumers, one company feels that we can, and must, do better than the current ecology of smartphone usage.
Fairphone, a Dutch company, has just released its newest product the Fairphone 2. Founded in 2013, the Netherlands based company attempted to create socially conscious smartphones geared towards impacting key areas of today’s smartphone market. The Fairphone 2 seeks to raise awareness and change the use of conflict minerals, electronic waste (e-waste), and the privacy concerns surrounding many smartphones.
The primary issue the Fairphone tries to combat is the use of conflict materials in our smartphones. Specifically, this refers to valuable metals like gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten that are mined from areas in and surrounding the Democratic of Congo (DoC). The financing from mining activities goes towards fuelling violent conflict and the maintenance of modern slave labor faced by mine workers. Rape is often the tool chosen by these militia groups to manipulate men into slave labor, and the DoC has been called the worst place to be a woman. Watch the below video, Conflict Minerals 101, for a look into the conflict mineral issue in the DoC. It should be clear, I hope, as to why the creators of Fairphone and many other smartphone users around the world, myself included, do not want these materials in our devices.
An area often overlooked– partially because of the public attention the use of conflict material draws–– is the environmental impact caused from our mobile devices. Fairphone utilizes a modular construction with replaceable parts to combat this challenge. In this way, when a piece of your phone is damaged or requires replacements of some sort, the repairs can be completed efficiently, unlike with other phones. If we are to use the common example of your phone’s battery, many device manufacturers glue the battery directly to the hardware so when you break a piece of the phone, it often means that it’s time to replace the entire device. This consistent upgrading and replacing of damaged phones has led to excessive amounts of mobile waste. In using a modular design, the creators of the Fairphone 2 hope to take the average lifespan of mobile devices from two years to closer to five and a half.
Designed to help users better address privacy on mobile devices, the Fairphone 2 comes with “privacy impact analysis.” Privacy Impact Analysis is a warning message issued when users first open an application. The message will provide a ranking to the application of high, medium, or low depending on the level of data access an app requires. Putting all these features together, Fairphone is trying to help push mobile users out of the binary between our ethics and our tech. But with a price tag around $750 CAD, ethicality might still not be feasible to all, especially when stacked up against flagship products like the Note and 6P that don’t cost as much as the Fairphone 2, but are still able to outperform it. Additionally, while the Fairphone does a great job of limiting the conflict materials used in the construction of their device, they cannot yet eliminate it.
Below are the specifications for the Fairphone 2:
Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with Adreno 330 GPU
5-inch Full HD LCD screen
2 GB RAM
32GB of storage with a microSD expansion slot for extra storage
Dual-SIM card slot
8MP rear camera with f 2.2 aperture and a 2MP front facing camera
2420 mAh Li-ion battery
Android 5.1 Lollipop
More than aware of the limitations of their product, Fairphone stresses that this isn’t the end goal when it comes to making socially conscious smartphones: it’s the beginning. The major hope is to begin pushing all major phone manufacturers toward ethical and environmentally conscious modes of production.
About Ryan Jeethan
Ryan is a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Arts & Business program focusing on UW’s unique Speech Communication program.