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Dell asks PC buyers nuclear questions

The computer maker puts buyers on its Web site through a series of detailed questions about the intended use of the products.

Dell is taking extra measures on its Web site to ensure that its customers are not developing weapons of mass destruction.

The computer maker has hit upon a direct way of ensuring customers are not planning to use hardware bought from its e-commerce sites for nefarious purposes: it simply asks them.

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As part of the export compliance process on Dell's U.S. and U.K. Web sites, it asks the buyer some questions: Who will be the product's end user? What is the intended use? And it asks whether the products will be exported (and if so, to what countries), and whether the products will "be used in connection with weapons of mass destruction, i.e. nuclear applications, missile technology, or chemical or biological weapons purposes."

A Dell representative said the questions were a routine part of the sale process, and were required by any U.S. corporation to comply with export regulations. Companies are not allowed to sell products destined for countries that face export restrictions. Dell says it will not process an order that "specifies an address of a freight forwarder, warehouse, distribution center, airport or hotel".

Other computer makers generally make do by referring buyers to a "terms of sale" page, with terms such as "you agree to comply with all export laws".

Dell's terms of sale on its U.K. site are more specific. The company reminds buyers that the product may not be sold to countries with export restrictions or to "a user involved in weapons of mass destruction or genocide without the prior consent of the U.S. or competent E.U. government".

On the company's U.S. site, the company further defines "weapons of mass destruction" as "without limitation, activities related to the design, development, production or use of nuclear weapons, materials, or facilities, missiles or the support of missile projects, and chemical or biological weapons".

Dell is also careful to shield itself from liability in cases where its products are used in a "high-risk activity," including "the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communications systems, air traffic control, medical systems, life support or weapons systems." Dell said its telephone-sales operators are not required to query customers on the intended use of their products.

The "terms of use" on the e-commerce sites of other computer makers, such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, omit references to weapons of mass destruction, but Sun Microsystems does remind users of its site that, by law, its products may not be used to "design, develop or produce missile, chemical/biological, or nuclear weaponry".

Dell, which sells direct only, is the No. 2 PC maker worldwide and is looking to rapidly increase its sales outside the United States and Europe, and has said it sees particular market-share potential in China.

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.