New allies train sights on export controls

September 11, 1998

Research at risk from Mandelson white paper. Tony Durham and Natasha Loder report.

Arms traders and academics have formed an unlikely alliance to resist proposed controls on the export of software and other intangible goods. They will be expressing their misgivings to Peter Mandelson, secretary of state for trade and industry, between now and September 30 when consultation on the white paper on strategic export controls (www.dti. gov.uk/export.control/stratex/) closes.

If the proposals become law, according to some interpretations, export licences might be required for higher education delivered abroad on the Internet or even for teaching overseas students in the United Kingdom. International research could also be affected.

Businesses fear the proposed extension of export controls to information and knowledge. Major-General Alan Sharman, director general of the Defence Manufacturers Association said: "We have no difficulty at all with there being rules and regulations and a licensing system. The trouble with this is it would make business almost impossible to conduct".

State secrets are protected by the Official Secrets Act. A DTI spokesperson said the main target of the new legislation is the transfer of proprietary technology by companies. "You do not need an export licence for information that is in the public domain. That principle would continue to apply, but it could become an offence to publish some of the most sensitive technology relating to weapons of mass destruction."

The proposed clampdown on publishing is one of the white paper's most controversial points. "It is a difficult issue and views are invited. It is by no means a final or definite proposal," the spokesperson said.

John Dobson, professor of information management at Newcastle University pointed out that standard undergraduate chemistry textbooks contain a recipe for mustard gas. He said: "The way to control something which is undesirable is not by controlling the enabling technology. It just doesn't work."

The white paper is being studied at the Foundation for Information Privacy Research, set up with Pounds 100,000 funding from Microsoft. Nicholas Bohm, who represents the Law Society on the FIPR's advisory board, said the proposals would give the government broad powers to control what is spoken and published. "It has got to give serious concern to any lawyer and anyone in research."

Though controls on publishing would be confined to technology for weapons of mass destruction, controls on the export of knowledge would apply to a broad range of high technologies, including high-end PCs and numerically-controlled machine tools. Cambridge University computer scientist Ross Anderson fears that the DTI could be moving towards the American system of personal export licences for foreign PhD students who work with high technology. In a paper posted on the Web last week (www.cl.cam.ac. uk/rja14/export.html), he argued that this would infringe academic freedom.

Cambridge ignores the voluntary scheme under which MI5 vets research students from abroad who study subjects with military uses.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is preparing a response to the white paper. A spokesperson said: "The proposals have the potential to inhibit research activities, much of which is conducted by electronic means collaboratively across borders. We are also concerned about implications for UK staff teaching overseas, or indeed the teaching of overseas students in UK institutions. We recognise the need for safeguards on the export of dangerous technology, but we will wish to be reassured that the proposals will do this without damage to academic activities."

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