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Senate Bill 149: Down but Not Out

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2003
Brent D. Johnson

Senate Bill 149 lapsed into oblivion during this past session of the US Congress, but with renewed impetus from the Bush administration and a Republican House and Senate, it may find new life and a more receptive climate when Congress reopens.

The bill would reauthorize the Export Administration Act of 1979, resolving some of the problems of the current system. Although it doesn't specifically address the list of banned commodities, it does attempt to deal with the pace of advancing technology as well as with certain provisions that restrained trade under the previous act.

For example, the major points of contention in the last Congress were the foreign availability and mass market measures that would have allowed US companies to export items that are available abroad.

Several photonics companies have been caught in this snare. Optical Associates was fined $100,000 for exporting semiconductor manufacturing equipment to India. Dexin International Inc. was fined for exporting Probeye Model 7300 thermal video systems without an export license, and another company paid penalties of $40,000 for exporting diode lasers to Israel.

The latter case points out how slippery this slope can be. Israel is an ally of the US and receives substantial funding and military support. Laser diodes are perhaps as readily available as toothpaste; yet, because the laser diode specification landed on the Export Administration Regulations list, the company violated the law -- without knowing it.

John Stack, president of Edmund Industrial Optics, became interested in these regulations because Edmund had acquired a debarred company and, despite favorable decisions from judges, the US State Department refuses to lift the ban.

In a lecture to the Automated Imaging Association last spring, Stack pointed out that there are long lists of people whom US companies cannot sell to, and that, oddly enough a large number of these companies are in the US. He also discovered that simplicity or commonality does not mean that the technology is not controlled.

Richard Cupitt of the US Department of Commerce said the bill should result in unimpeded trade between the US and allies who have good export control, while making sure that these things don't end up in the hands of terrorists. It also focuses legal resources on the most dangerous kinds of trade and promotes global security.

A representative of the Optical Society of America believes that it's a moot point, however. The bill has been sitting in the House since Sept. 10, 2001, and is one of 10,000 that may or may not be reintroduced next session.

Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council and former undersecretary for the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration, said that it's hard to imagine why people involved in photonics would want to support the bill. He believes that it will tighten significantly the controls on technology exports to China, the primary and potentially most lucrative market for many new photonic devices.


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