US computer giants balk at outdated export restrictions
THE United States Government's export restrictions on supercomputers, intended to keep computing power from America's enemies, have essentially been rendered obsolete by advances in microprocessors and the Internet, computer industry officials said.
That was why an industry group went public last week with a campaign to get the government to eliminate export restrictions, 'which is what we really want, or to dramatically liberalise the controls,' Greg Garcia, the American Electronics Association's (AEA) senior manager for international trade affairs, said.
The Clinton Administration is considering revising export controls.
The changes could mean more business for Cray Research, Sun Microsystems, IBM, and other American companies that make supercomputers or the chips that make them work.
Easing the export rules could make their products cheaper.
Recently, the leaders of 10 of the United States' largest computer companies met Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who is head of the National Economic Council, and other Clinton Administration officials to discuss the export rules.
'What they favoured was control based on the end user, rather than computing power,' William Reinsch, undersecretary of commerce for export administration, said.
That step would result in lifting restrictions on sales of equipment in friendly countries, but continuing them on sales in countries deemed to be dangerous.
Such a change was being considered, along with several others, Mr Reinsch said. It is too early to tell.
Supercomputers are used for everything from modelling the space shuttle to animating the dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park.
The Commerce Department and Japan put controls on exports of them in 1991, fearing that rogue countries would use them to speed the production of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. American and Japanese companies are the pre-eminent makers of supercomputers.
Today, many observers say the availability of computer technology has little to do with the creation of weapons of mass destruction.
What may be more important than computing power is the knowledge of how to handle nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. And that's available through the Internet.
Its electronic mail and file transfer capabilities allow almost anyone to obtain information.
At the same time, advances in networking connecting independent personal computers so they function as a unit, make the export controls irrelevant, company officials contend.
'You can now network a lot of computers to achieve the same computing speeds that a single large supercomputer can achieve,' Mr Garcia said.
'The network is the computer.' The prices that IBM, Cray, Sun and other US companies must charge on the international market are inflated by the security measures the government requires when a supercomputer is exported.