U.S. government throws in towel on computer export limits

The White House yesterday essentially threw in the towel on the government's ability to limit exports of high-performance computers, while also acknowledging that there's little the U.S. can do to prevent other nations from developing high-powered systems by harnessing computer power through networked clusters of machines.

          The White House yesterday essentially threw in the towel on the government's ability to limit exports of high-performance computers, while also acknowledging that there's little the U.S. can do to prevent other nations from developing high-powered systems by harnessing computer power through networked clusters of machines.

          As part of an announcement that substantially relaxes the limits placed by the U.S. on computer exports, the Clinton administration said it "has concluded that there are no meaningful or effective control measures for computer hardware that address the [current] technological or marketplace challenges."

          The U.S. adopted export restrictions in 1993 in an effort to keep high-performance computing power out of the hands of nations that might use it to improve their military capabilities. But hardware and chip manufacturers have argued that the controls put them at a competitive disadvantage against vendors from other countries.

          Yesterday, the White House eased its sales restrictions to the so-called "Tier 3" nations -- such as India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam and countries in the Middle East. The new limits allow exports of computers with processing power of up to 85,000 million theoretical operations per second, more than three times higher than the previous limit of 28,000 MTOPS. The old limit is roughly equal to a system running four Intel Corp. 64-bit Itanium processors.

          The new policy also eliminates export licensing requirements for some systems to Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Thailand and other countries designated as "Tier 2" trading partners. However, the White House is maintaining an embargo against computer sales to "Tier 4" countries: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan and Syria.

          This is the sixth time the U.S. has raised the export levels, but the White House said that by mid-1999, it was apparent computer hardware capabilities were outpacing the ability of export control policy to keep up. The administration added that its "review found that the ability to control the acquisition of computational capabilities by controlling computer hardware is becoming ineffective and will be increasingly so within a very short time."

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