Computer Export Bar Is Eased
By David E. Sanger
The New York Times
August 19, 1987
The Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc nations will soon be able to import an unlimited number of no-frills personal computers from the United States and its allies, under a significant change in export control regulations, Administration officials said yesterday.
The loosening of controls will mark the first time that the West has allowed ordinary personal computers, of the type commonly used in offices and homes for the last seven years, to be exported freely to the Soviet Union without export licenses.
But the change is not likely to be greeted with joy by Soviet computer hackers seeking state-of-the-art technology. The new rules will allow only the most basic personal computers to be sold to the Soviet bloc - the kind, for example, that the International Business Machines Corporation stopped manufacturing last year -and no one expects the Russians to use scarce hard currency to buy technology that dates to 1980.
Announcement in September
The current generation of personal computers, officials said, including I.B.M.'s new PS/2 line, announced last April, and Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh computers, will still require licenses. The new guidelines are expected to be announced formally to the computer industry in early September, officials said.
A liberalization of the rules has long been sought by America's allies in the Paris-based Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls that governs export regulations, and by American computer industry executives.
The United States, officials said yesterday, dropped its objections when it became apparent that the Russians were obtaining the machines anyway - usually through Taiwan and Hong Kong, where ''PC clones'' are produced by the hundreds of thousands in small factories and out-of-the-way garages.
'Difficult to Enforce'
''Our hope is to make the controls more efficient by eliminating regulations on low-level goods that are extremely difficult to enforce,'' said Dan Hoydysh, the acting director of the Commerce Department's office of technology and policy analysis. At the Defense Department, which has generally taken the hardest line against liberalization of the export control rules, officials said they had concluded that the machines would be of minimal military value to the Soviet Union.
''What everyone is going to learn quickly is that the Russians don't want to buy machines, they want to build machines,'' said Stephen D. Bryen, the head of the Defense Department's export control office. ''And that is what we will not give them the tools to do.''
Yesterday, officials described the change in the regulations as the first in a series of moves to pare the coordinating committee's list of restricted technologies. But agreement could not be reached on the broader changes, including an increase in the power of computers that each member country could license under ''national discretion,'' or without consulting other committee members.
Most of the revisions were already in discussion before disclosures this spring that the Toshiba Machine Company, a subsidiary of the Toshiba Corporation, the Japanese electronics giant, shipped propeller-making technology to a Soviet shipyard outside Leningrad. The incident provoked outrage in Congress, and now American negotiators have insisted that any further loosening of controls be tied to commitments from Japan and other allies of much stricter enforcement of the coordinating committee's rules.
Data Rate Adjustment
In the language of the committee's regulations, the changes to go into effect in early September involve an adjustment in the threshold ''processing data rate,'' a Government-established measure of a computer's ''throughput.'' Currently, any computer with a processing data rate over 2 - a category that excludes most machines more powerful that a handheld calculator or video game machine - requires an export license.
Now, licenses will be required for machines with a processing data rate in excess of 6.5. An I.B.M. PC or XT, both of which are no longer manufactured, is rated at about 5.2. All the members of the Apple II line fall below the 6.5 threshhold, a company spokesman said yesterday, but all of its Macintosh computers are above the limit.
All of the personal computers that can be freely shipped under the new rules have been sent to the Soviet Union before, but only in limited quantities, with licenses that specifically designate what the ''end use'' of the machines will be. Officials at Apple and I.B.M. said that, so far, their sales to the Soviet Union have been minimal. ''You could count this business on two hands,'' an Apple official said.
In fact, American analysts said, for a combination of economic and social reasons, the Russians were not likely to flock to American computer stores.
The economic reasons are fairly simple: Most American-made personal computers allowed under the new rules are insufficiently powerful for most scientists and engineers, who are seeking more capable ''engineering workstations,'' and too expensive for the Soviet schools.
'Clones' of Apple Line
The relatively few microcomputers already in place in Soviet schools, experts said, were largely Soviet bloc ''clones'' of Apple Computer's line. ''That's the only thing they seem to have figured out how to make reliably,'' said one expert who studies Soviet computers for American intelligence agencies. ''For some reason, even though the Taiwanese have copied I.B.M. PC's, the Russians can't get the hang of it.''
But most officials said that political constraints were likely to be the chief factor in limiting the distribution of personal computers. Though Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, has said repeatedly that he plans to make computer literacy a key element of the Soviet educational system, many are wary of the machines' potential uses. Academics studying the potential impact of computers in the Soviet Union have pointed out in recent years that the machines are also useful as small printing presses and back-channel communications networks, both of which threaten to decentralize political power.
An additional impediment to the widespread use of even basic personal computers in the Soviet Union may be the absence of compatible software. While I.B.M. and Apple software have been translated into a number of languages, Cyrillic is not among them.
Copyright 1987 The New York Times Company