Players on a Much Expanded Field

The United States has had an enormous role in stimulating and enabling this change. American contributions include cheap and powerful hardware; great quantities of (often "free") software; networking; American buying and importing habits (which recently include a trade deficit in IT products); the "Mecca" of the U.S. technical education community; and the fruits of military and space research and competition (most notably, from a global standpoint, the Internet and global positioning system). The United States still comprises about 40 percent of the world's computing market.

Although its relative position has declined, the United States still has almost as much computing as the rest of the world together. This country is now the most important player in a much bigger game. As such, the United States is more prominent, accomplished, and extensively involved in computing, and more people in the rest of the world have direct contact with the United States than ever before. Thus, more foreigners than ever before care about what is done by the United States.

As important as the United States is in global IT, there are also many other players. Some are already quite substantial and others are becoming so. These players are not just governments of countries that now have a serious presence in the global IT scene and are not just foreign IT companies. Rather, the spread and application of IT has been such that many nongovernmental, non-IT industry stakeholders have emerged or have been strengthened. Their involvement results from their interests in the applications of IT (including its "application" as their exports), and they are empowered because of their wealth, constituencies, and newfound voices (often enabled by IT). The interests and the numbers of these actors also create new, or exacerbate old, conflicts and issues. These stakeholders cover a much broader spectrum of business, academic, nongovernmental organization, and private citizen actors than ever. There is even a larger set of stakeholders within governments. Furthermore, the global diffusion of IT has weakened some older stakeholders, and they have not all taken their diminution quietly.

To illustrate how international changes in value conflicts and stakeholders have affected a major technological policy issue over the past 10 years, consider U.S. national security and foreign policy export control. This is arguably the earliest, longest-lived, computer-related U.S. public policy issue, and one with an enormous footprint across the U.S. government. Export control was the subject of one of the first major Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) studies,1 as well as one of its most recently completed major studies. We limit this discussion to export controls on computers, particularly high-performance computers, but a similar short analysis might also be made with respect to the control of encryption.

First and foremost, what has changed in the world is that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the peer threat pursuing a full spectrum of advanced military systems has all but disappeared. This is not to say that there are no significant threats to the United States from foreign sources who may benefit from enhanced computing capabilities, but these threats are not in the same league as the earlier possibilities for global superpower conflict. Taken together with the realities of technological progress and diffusion, this means that advocates of controls find it harder to justify the continuation of controls on the basis of specific applications that potential enemies might be able to pursue using computer products that might still be effectively controlled.

To appreciate how difficult effective control has become, we note that in early 1993, a raw computing performance threshold of 195 MTOPS (millions of theoretical operations per second; since appropriately revised upward twice by the U.S. government) was used to define a control regime for "supercomputers." Today, millions of microprocessors are produced each year with performance levels of about half to four times that value. There is now so much made-in-the-U.S.A. computing in so many parts of the world that it is unfortunately inevitable, but essentially unpreventable, that some of it will be used against U.S. national security interests.

Furthermore, there is now a greater division of value judgments within the national security group of stakeholders. For example, some Department of Defense beneficiaries of COTS (commercial, off-the-shelf) high-performance computing (HPC) see more benefit to what they do and to U.S. national security from a strong, technologically vigorous, domestic industry than from continued export controls.


Computer Science and Technology Board, National Research Council. 1988. Global Trends in Computer Technology and Their Impact on Export Control. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement