U.S. eases export controls on higher-performance PCs

The Commerce Department relaxes controversial export controls on high-performance computers, a change prompted by the increasing sophistication of everyday desktop machines.

3 min read
The Commerce Department relaxed controversial export controls on high-performance computers, a change prompted by the increasing sophistication of everyday desktop machines.

Effective today, the United States has lifted strict controls from some countries and allowed others to import higher-performance computers. U.S. export controls seek to protect national security by preventing powerful computers from being exported for potential military or other purposes.

But the United States revised its guidelines because the pace of development has meant that export restrictions have increasingly applied to low- to mid-level machines.

"What used to be a supercomputer not very long ago is now slower than the Pentium computer on your desk," a Commerce Department spokeswoman said. "If you go back to the mid-1980's, the computers that were available [contained outdated microprocessors], and at the time they were really powerful computers."

The move temporarily defuses tensions between security concerns and overseas commerce. Computer manufacturers are anxious to export their products, but high-profile cases of technology being "repurposed" for military or terrorist use have stung Congress, concerned with proliferating threats in the post-Cold War era.

The computer industry, which has long criticized the restrictions as harming U.S. companies, is applauding the move.

"That was the right direction to go," said Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association. "In fact, we'd probably like to see them do more." Today's change is the third revision in the export regime since 1993, the Commerce Department said.

Black said it has taken a long time for the export controls to be eased to this level, and the issue isn't closed. "The level of technological change of what's being used on the desktop is rapidly increasing," he said. "We're going to have a constant need every six months or so for changing those numbers."

He added it doesn't make sense to control computer exports. "These are computers. These are things sold in Radio Shack. They are being controlled under a regime and a mindset that assumes they're weapons," he said.

The previous controls required that companies needed to get export approval for commodity systems. A dual-processor 500-MHz Pentium III system would be classified as a supercomputer under the old export rules, some experts alleged, while systems based on Intel's Merced processor, coming next year, also violated the restrictions. Today's fastest supercomputers perform at up to 1.6 million MTOPS.

Earlier this summer, the White House said it would ease the controls. (See related story)

Some moved to low-risk category
High-performance computers are controlled through a four-tiered system in which countries that represent a low risk to national security, such as Canada, are allowed to import high-performance computers with few restrictions. Controls increase with countries that are perceived to be a threat, up to a virtual embargo on nations such as Iraq.

Also today, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Brazil were moved into the low-risk category. Meanwhile, computer performance levels allowed in the next strata of countries--which include South Africa and South Korea--doubled. Higher-performance computers were also allowed into the next tier of countries, although there is a sharp distinction between what is allowed for civilian vs. military users.

The amount of computing power allowed is judged in Millions of Theoretical Operations per Second, or MTOPS. The range allowable for these third-tier companies, such as India, Pakistan, China, and Russia, increased from 2 to 7,000 MTOPS for a civilian end user to between 2,000 and 12,300 MTOPS. In six months, it is set to increase to 6,500 MTOPS.

A company must notify the Commerce Department if it plans to sell a computer with MTOPS in that range. After ten days, the company can ship the computer if the Commerce Department hasn't said not to.