Industry groups have complained for years that computer-export restrictions are too tight. Now, it seems that a number of government agencies agree with the industry's criticisms - including the Defense Department, which released a report last week recommending that power-related restrictions be abandoned.
"You have seen a small sea change on [Capitol Hill] where members are more understanding that technology is changing quickly and it's hard for the regulatory area to keep up with it," said Connie Correll, spokeswoman for the Information Technology Industry Council.
In an effort to reduce the risk that a hostile power could obtain enough computing power to build nuclear weapons, the US government has long restricted the ability of US manufacturers to export such computers. The computer industry has chafed at the restrictions, saying that they hurt its ability to trade without increasing national security.
Pointing out that the amount of computing power needed to simulate a nuclear blast is readily available from foreign companies, the industry is asking the government to remove the MTOPS power measurement that it uses in order to determine which computers may be sold to which countries. MTOPS counts how many millions of theoretical operations per second a computer can perform in order to determine whether it must be licensed.
The government implemented the MTOPS measurement in the early 1990s to differentiate supercomputers from low-end computers. Countries were ranked in tiers based on perceived national security risks and given corresponding MTOPS levels, above which an export license was required. In 1993, computer manufacturers shipping computers to tier three, or "high risk," countries such as India, China and Israel had to obtain an export license for computers measured at 1,500 MTOPS.
Of course, one of the main problems with enforcing limits on MTOPS is that manufacturers build increasingly powerful computers, requiring the government to raise the acceptable level repeatedly. "If we hadn't been able to raise the level, you wouldn't have been able to sell a single PC that's on the market today," said Dan Hoydysh, director of trade, public policy and government affairs at Unisys Corp. (UIS) and co-chairman of the Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports. CCRE was founded in 1998 by the chief executives of computer makers such as Apple Computer Inc., Dell Computer Corp., IBM Corp. (IBM) and Intel Corp. (INTC) to promote export-control reform.
The standard was raised six times during the Clinton administration, the last of which raised the tier-three requirement to 85,000 MTOPS, about the level of a networked system with 32 Intel Pentium III chips.
But no matter how high the bar is raised, it never seems to be enough for a rapidly advancing industry. Unisys, which makes high-power computer systems for banks and credit card companies, is already anticipating a hassle with export authorities when Intel's Itanium chip debuts later this year. One 32-chip Itanium system would be capable of 290,000 MTOPS, more than twice as many as the new level allows.
Computer exporters now must fill out separate license applications for each transaction involving computers with more than 28,000 MTOPS. These applications are then reviewed by the State, Commerce and Defense Departments, which have 30 days to raise any objections. But the clock can stop indefinitely if any department wants more information.
Industry experts argue that during this time-consuming process, competitors from countries with less stringent export control enforcement can make inroads into the market.
"When you lose your market share, you pretty much can't get it back from your competitors," said AnnMarie McIntyre, director of trade regulations for AeA, formerly the American Electronics Association.
According to CCRE's Jennifer Greeson, the US is the only country that classifies commercial high-performance computers as "choke point technology" - technology that is restricted because of its potential to contribute to nuclear proliferation.
With the US economy slowing down, lawmakers are particularly interested in removing trade barriers. Former President Clinton supported eliminating the MTOPS measurement entirely. During his campaign, President George W. Bush called the export-control system "broken," though he has yet to take a stand on the MTOPS issue. Several high-profile high-tech CEOs recently met with senior White House staff members and Commerce Secretary Bob Evans. Greeson says the staffers reiterated Bush's receptiveness to reform.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has proposed a bill that would eliminate all MTOPS requirements on computers that are readily available in US stores or from foreign competitors. Industry representatives said the bill wouldn't help them because it leaves the MTOP standard in place.
However, some feel the bill would ease restrictions too much.
"The definitions of those terms - 'mass-market status' and 'foreign availability' - are so sweeping that they would essentially command the secretary of commerce to decontrol a tremendous amount of sensitive equipment," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "I don't see any need for that."
Milhollin may have an ally in Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who said Congress and the president need to take their time on the issue in order to balance commercial interests with national interests, "which in the past have not been given due deference."
As often happens in the US, however, it may be difficult to separate national interests from commercial interests.