Knowledge Transfer Controls and Academic Freedom

28.03.2002

The implications of the UK Export Control Bill

A controversial bill that extends export controls on armaments from hardware to intangible goods is currently before the British Parliament. The Export Control Bill has been viewed by some quarters as carrying serious implications for academic freedom, by curtailing research and collaboration through the adoption of transfer controls and the introduction of a licensing regime.

The aim of the Bill, as outlined in its introduction, is to "make provision enabling controls to be imposed on the exportation of goods, the transfer of technology, the provision of technical assistance overseas and activities connected with trade in controlled goods; and for connected purposes". As defined in the Export Control Bill, "'technology' means information (including information comprised in software)". In fact, one of the primary objectives of the Bill is to extend current export control laws that cover only physical goods to include intangibles such as software.

While the Bill is seen by the Government as an additional tool in its fight against international terrorism, some academics view the proposed law as being so widely drawn that it would provide ministers with the power to review and suppress any scientific paper prior to its publication, and to license foreign students (not just at British Universities, but students taught by UK nationals anywhere in the world).

According to Ross Anderson, a Cambridge University professor and chairperson of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, the effects of the Export Control Bill would be felt across the fields of science and technology, impacting both research and education:

"The new law would cover most of our research in computer science (fast networks, high performance computing, neural networks, real-time expert systems, hardware and software verification, reverse engineering, computer security, cryptography) and could even force a rewrite of lecture course and project material. The Department of Engineering would be hit by the listing of numerically controlled machine tools and fibre winding equipment, robots, optical amplifiers, software radios and aero engine control systems, as well as many lasers, gyros, accelerometers and similar components. The restrictions that previously only applied to physical hardware objects will be extended to the software used to design, test, control or operate them, or to integrate them into larger systems."

The proposed law would also negatively impact transnational collaborative projects. A simple action such as sending an email to a foreign collegue relating to a research issue could end up requiring a special licence. Just like the teaching of many subjects to foreign students would fall under a licensing scheme. It is easy to envisage the administrative nightmare this would entail, the damaging effects on the overseas student contingent and on the development of academic work in general.

In Anderson's opinion, opponents of the Bill may "argue that while one may well decide to curtail long-established academic liberties because something bad has happened, it is excessive to do so because a bad thing might happen, but hasn't. (Al-Qaida isn't an excuse, unless even basic aerospace engineering is to be reclassified as a technology relevant to weapons of mass destruction)". In the meantime, the Cambridge professor has proposed an amendment to the proposed law exempting research and teaching, which has received the backing of Universities UK and the Association of University Teachers.

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