Next President's Agenda Is High Tech's Question

Next President's Agenda Is High Tech's Question

Al Gore

By Kerry Gildea, Contributing Writer

With Congress last month approving legislation to streamline the congressional review period for export controls on high-speed computers, the technology industry now is looking to the next administration to set forth new export guidelines, according to industry officials and congressional aides.

Congress in October passed the Fiscal Year 2001 Defense Authorization Act with an amendment to reduce from 180 to 60 days the congressional review period for export controls on supercomputers.

The amendment, initially attached to the House version of the bill and passed Oct. 11 in a 382-31 vote, was proposed by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif. The Senate approved the measure Oct. 12.

"By streamlining the congressional review period for export controls, we are giving our first-class computer manufacturers the relief they need to compete and win in the global marketplace," Dreier said.

While the shorter review waiting process will make it easier for the U.S. high-tech industry to sell computer products, industry had hoped for an even shorter time period, said Jason Mahler, vice president and general counsel for the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

"We would have preferred 30 days ... but we had to settle for 60, which is obviously a huge improvement over 180," he said.

A shortened export review process is not the complete solution industry is seeking. Industry wants an overhaul of the whole process and criteria for reviewing computers and technologies, according to Mahler.

While industry officials are trying to work with the administration to devise reasonable standards for regulating computer exports, they also believe the next administration will have a large say in this debate regarding how to balance national security concerns with U.S. commercial interests.

Industry officials believe that presidential candidates Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are both sympathetic to their views regarding the export control process, Mahler said.

"The governor has said some specifics, while Gore has made more general [comments], but favorable as well. I think industry believes we will be in decent shape no matter who wins," he said.

Grant Seiffert, vice president of government relations for the Telecommunications Industry Association, agreed, saying that it does not matter so much who leads the next administration as long as the changes industry needs to reach the global market are put in place.

"Industry's biggest concern is speed and getting paper off a bureaucrat's desk to sign off on sale of a supercomputer or telecom switch," Seiffert said.

The Clinton administration has moved in the right direction in addressing export control and encryption issues, albeit slowly, he said. The next administration needs to continue to improve the export licensing process, speed it up and establish more uniform standards, he said.

In response to questions posed through an Aerospace Industries Association of America forum, Bush said Oct. 2 too often the federal government's export policies are arbitrary and irrational and are overtaken by the very technology they attempt to regulate.

"Yesterday's supercomputer is today's laptop," Bush said. "Yet,
current rules don't take this into account. And there has been too little opportunity for America's high-tech exporters to make their case about what should be restricted and what should not."

Bush said as president he would fix the export control system by developing a tough-minded, common-sense export control policy that significantly narrows the scope of restrictions on commercial products, while building high walls around technologies of the highest sensitivity.

"I recognize that our national security and commercial competitiveness have been compromised by a broken export control system," Bush said.

Bush added that he supports allowing companies to export products that already are readily available in foreign or mass markets. Under the current system, controls are generally based on technical specifications, such as raw computing power.

MTOPS, which stands for million theoretical operations per second, is the standard measurement of computing power that is used to determine if a computer should be permitted for export or if it may pose a risk to national security. But restrictions based on MTOPS measurements consistently lag behind technological developments, resulting in unilateral U.S. restrictions on widely available technologies, Bush said.

This view is generally shared by industry, which views the MTOPS measurement method as an outdated way of setting U.S. export control levels, Mahler said.

"The problem with MTOPS is it does not account for scalability of computers, and networking of computers and other factors that go into how useful a computer might be if there are national security concerns, such as testing of a nuclear weapon," Mahler said.

For example, one computer by itself may not be of grave concern, but if linked to six other computers, it might surpass MTOPS levels.

"We are saying you have got to look at the technology and get in deeper than just MTOPS levels to be able to figure out what computers and computing technology we should be concerned about as a country, as far as our national security," he said.

While Gore, in the same industry forum, did not address the MTOPS issue specifically, he said that he and running mate Joseph Lieberman understand the role technology plays in the global economy and America's military superiority and readiness. Gore said he would work to better integrate the defense industrial bases with the strength of the overall global economy.

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