US and its Allies near agreement on computer export controls

United States trade officials are close to reaching agreement with America's major trading allies on a new set of international export controls for computers , according a senior Commerce Department official.

The controls are designed to prevent potentially strategic computers from falling into the hands of the Soviet military.

Most of the issues under discussion between the US and the other members of the Paris-based Coordinating Committee on Export Controls (COCOM) are expected to be resolved by the end of the month, according to acting assistant Commerce Secretary William T. Archey. Remaining details will be handled in early July, he says. COCOM members include Japan and the NATO allies, minus Iceland.

The agreement will significantly update existing export controls on computers - controls that have not been revised since 1974. Mr. Archey says it will spell out performance parameters for computers deemed to have potential military applications in the Soviet Union or the East bloc. In addition, it may articulate for the first time a multilateral policy for the control of computer software.

Archey declined to spell out precise details of the prospective agreement or to indicate which issues remain unresolved.

Computers have represented one of the toughest areas in talks between the US and the other COCOM members. In the past, officials say, the US has taken tough stands for broader regulations on computers that would require export licenses for shipment to the Soviet bloc.

The tough US positions have resulted in a decade of disagreement and lack of coordination within COCOM. Industry observers say US negotiators have shown more flexibility in current COCOM talks. US officials say they are intent on securing a unified position within COCOM - with increased emphasis on multilateral export controls. In the past, in the absence of COCOM agreement, the US has imposed unilateral controls on goods and technologies it deemed strategic.

Industry officials have been kept in the dark about the US negotiating position on computers. Some observers have said they were expecting a protracted and stormy series of talks in Paris on computer-export controls.

''It would surprise us very much if those deep-seated views could be resolved that quickly,'' says Charlotte LeGates of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association. The group has expressed concern that American proposals to regulate personal computers with 32-bit capability would ''hand over the entire personal computer market to our competitors abroad.''

Observers say the European and Japanese delegates in COCOM view such US positions, in part, as an attempt to impose American policies on their domestic economic affairs. The COCOM partners have generally resisted US proposals to broaden export controls for goods and technologies they deem to be of debatable strategic significance.

The issue of computer controls has also been a source of controversy in Washington among policymakers and industry officials. The Pentagon has pushed for controls of personal computers, noting that similar models are currently being used by American and NATO troops to coordinate battlefield communications and management. Defense officials argue that many modern portable computers have the technical capabilities of the large mainframe computers of a decade ago.

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