U.S. Shift Urged On Export Rules For Technology

By John Markoff
The New York Times

December 30, 1988

The United States should narrow its efforts to restrict exports of computer hardware and software to Communist nations and concentrate on certain advanced technologies that have crucial military applications, according to a report to be released today by the National Academy of Sciences.

The report says the Reagan Administration's attempts to restrict exports of a broad range of computer products have been unsuccessful.

The study, done at the request of the State Department, contends that the Soviet Union and its allies have obtained many computer technologies. It says those technologies have become ''commodity products,'' readily available from a variety of manufacturers in many nations and therefore ''effectively uncontrollable.''

As a result, the report says, the United States and its allies should concentrate on preventing Communist nations from obtaining ''computer technologies of compelling military importance,'' like supercomputers and sophisticated semiconductor manufacturing systems.

Focus on Networks Urged

The report also calls for tighter controls on international computer networks, which have the potential to be used for ''significant covert technology transfer.'' Those networks can be used to send software and other technological information, like circuit designs and details of manufacturing processes, almost anywhere.

The report is one of several efforts by executives and scientists to persuade the incoming administration of President-elect Bush to modify the Reagan Administration's export controls. Leaders of many American technology companies think the controls have given a competitive advantage to computer makers in countries with less restrictive trade policies.

A spokesman for the Department of Defense's export control office said that he had not seen the report and that the agency would have no immediate comment on it. He said many of the issues raised by the report had been the subject of discussion between the United States and its allies.

The new report is the latest word in a debate that has continued throughout the 1980's. In recent years, the National Academy of Sciences has issued several reports critical of the Reagan Administration's handling of exports of high technology. On one side of the debate are military officials who want to stem the flow of advanced technology to Communist nations. On the other side are scientists and industrialists who want to preserve as much open technical communication and trade as possible.

While export restrictions have kept some technologies out of Communist nations, the report says, this success must be balanced against ''increasing competitive disadvantages faced by United States manufacturers.''

The Americans' Concern

The concern is not about direct sales to the Soviet Union, which are minimal. The controls mainly affect American companies trying to sell computer components, like microchips, to European or Asian computer manufacturers.

Such transactions require extensive paperwork of foreign companies that plan to resell a restricted product to another nation.

Seymour E. Goodman, a professor of management information systems and policy at the University of Arizona at Tucson who led the study committee, said that European executives had told him frequently that red tape covering the resale of United States-made high technology components to United States allies had led manufacturers to choose Japanese products over American ones.

Entitled ''Global Trends in Computer Technology and Their Impact on Export Control,'' the report was prepared by the National Research Council, an arm of the academy. The study committee included computer scientists and corporate experts. Copies of the report are available from the National Research Council in Washington.

Changes Under Bush Seen

Some lobbyists and executives think the Bush administration will be far more willing than the Reagan Administration to relax controls.

''It's an entirely changed climate,'' said Robert Park, Washington director of the American Physical Society, which represents physicists.

The report cites several factors complicating the task of controlling computer exports. One is the growth of computer makers in Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea. They are not members of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, an organization of Western nations as well as Japan that maintains a list of products restricted for export to the Soviet-bloc nations and China. Therefore, they are free to sell computing equipment to those nations.

Another factor is advances in computer design. For example, 32-bit microprocessors, which are widely available, can now be linked in parallel to achieve remarkable computing power and speed.

''It is complicating the high-speed export control issue,'' Professor Goodman said, referring to efforts to control exports of high-speed supercomputers.

As an example of the new focus it urges, the report recommends that software be divided into three principal classes for purposes of control: exports of military-related software should be fully restricted; the programs used to design military software should also be controlled; however, other software that is currently restricted but widely available should be allowed to be exported freely to Communist countries.

Even though they have been able to obtain a great deal of computer technology, the Communist countries still trail Western nations by as much as 5 to 10 years in most fields, the report says. In part, this is because they have failed to develop an advanced ability to manufacture computers.

Situation in Soviet Union

While United States officials have occasionally contended that the Soviets have made strides in matching Western computing technology in their military sector, Professor Goodman said that Soviet efforts to improve computing technology had been plagued by poor manufacturing, uneven quality control and social and political factors.

A group of leading Soviet computer designers who visited the United States this summer said that the Soviet Union was just now designing prototype 32-bit microprocessors and that it would be two years before these chips were in mass production.

Those chips have been in production in the United States since 1984 and are now widely available in computers costing less than $2,000. Professor Goodman said that in a visit to the Soviet Union a month ago he had seen no evidence that the Soviets have been successful at developing their own 32-bit technology.

Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company