US export controls a self-destructive strategy

One of the dumbest things the U.S. government has done in the technology area over the last few decades is to assume that the United States is the source of all scientific knowledge and high-tech products.

This assumption has been best exemplified in the thicket of controls on the export of high-tech knowledge and products and the restrictions placed on non-U.S. researchers in U.S. research centers. In yet another recognition of the stupidity of these controls, a panel of the National Research Council (NRC), a U.S. government-supported research center, has published a pre-release version of a report calling on the new administration to dramatically change the rules.

In summary, the report says that the current “unilateral strategy of containment and isolation of our adversaries is, under current conditions, a self-destructive strategy for obsolescence and declining economic competitiveness.” In addition, it does not work. Other than that, I guess things are fine.

U.S. government export controls on encryption technology have historically been the poster child of what is wrong with the current approach. For many years the government blocked the export of encryption technology even when the exact same (and in many cases better) encryption technology was available on the open market in other parts of the world. A few years ago this situation was partially fixed, but the underlying issue of the rule makers not being willing to understand the real world has persisted.

The executive summary of the report is available from the NRC Web site, and the report itself is readable online through the NRC’s poorly designed and hard-to-use book reader.

The report provides four findings and three recommendations. The findings include the fact that the current export controls weaken U.S. innovation and competitiveness, that they are fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed by tweaking, that U.S. security and economic prosperity depend on us being fully engaged in the world around us, and that no system will eliminate all risks to U.S. security — the current system may even give a false sense of security.

The report recommends that the new president restructure the export control system with an aim to balance security and other interests, such as U.S. competitiveness. In particular, the report does not recommend dropping all controls. Instead it recommends that controls only be used where they actually will be effective and that each restriction be fully justified and revisited annually with a default action of removing the restriction unless there is very good reason to keep it.

The report also recommends relaxing the restrictions on non-U.S. citizens studying and working in scientific research in the United States.

This report makes a lot of sense. It is pathetic to watch the government tell U.S. companies that they are not permitted to compete against non-U.S. companies just because some device was put on a control list a decade ago and no one has the understanding to see that the technology is widely available in most of the world. Somehow some of these bureaucrats seem to think that no one outside of this country has any scientific knowledge.

I hope that the new administration will pay attention to reports like this and bring the United States back into the real world.

Disclaimer: Harvard tries to get students to the point where they can figure out what the real world is and means, but I’ve not seen a university position on this report. So please take the above review and opinion as mine.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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