An particularly important event took place in late September in Oxford, England. The Oxford International Conference on Export Controls is not well known -- it is closed to the public and only export control practitioners are invited to attend. But, because of the broad range of topics discussed and the depth of knowledge of the people involved, the conference may someday be seen as a watershed event in multilateral efforts to control exports of sensitive technology. The conference was attended by representatives from 31 countries and the four multilateral export control regimes -- the Wassenaar Agreement, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Australia Group. Japan and most European countries were represented, as were major transshipment centers such as Hong Kong, Cyprus and Malta.

Scott Bunton, deputy undersecretary of commerce for export administration, said that this year's conference was the second in what he hopes will be an annual event. Bunton said that instead of being a policy-setting operation, the Oxford conference is a forum in which the world's leading experts on export control can discuss problems, goals and visions in a relaxed and informal setting. By opting for an informal format, conference participants hoped to prevent policy-setting agendas from getting bogged down over national differences. Instead, they hope the Oxford Conference will serve as an incubator of ideas that could one day change everything from the way that export control data is shared among nations to the structure of the export control regimes themselves.

'When setting policy, delegations come with instructions and they must stick rigidly with their government's positions,' Bunton said. 'The wisdom of the Oxford conference, we think, is that no policy decisions are taken. The purpose is to let experts meet, let their hair down, exchange information and talk about successes and failures that cross national lines.'

By allowing the experts to speak as individuals rather than as government representatives, and by agreeing that nothing said at the conference is for attribution without the speaker's consent, discussions at the conference achieve a rare degree of honesty.

'People are not afraid to talk about problems and changes they anticipate in the future,' Bunton said. 'Otherwise, export control systems can go along with national blinders on and not see the problems immediately in front of them. There may be solutions which other nations have found that can prevent proliferation, which is the overall objective of export controls.'

There were seven elements on the conference agenda this year. In the spirit of the conference, the agenda was not formally set. Instead, said Bunton, it was agreed to by a consensus that reflected a common view of problems and challenges.

The first agenda item was the complex issue of intangible transfers of technology and software. Amanda DeBusk, assistant secretary of commerce for export enforcement, discussed the challenges posed by electronic transfers. She cited instances of U.S. technology companies that subcontract record-keeping to foreign firms -- beyond the reach of U.S. controls and U.S. law -- and of controlled technology that was transferred by email with no documentary trail.

The second item was communication between national export control bodies. Bunton said this is crucial to multilateral export control efforts. In addition to the use of classified intelligence to obtain information on violators, Bunton said there is a wealth of information on violators that is not protected by confidentiality agreements. Providing nations with the tools to take advantage of that information -- much of which is online -- could have a dramatic impact on reducing proliferation.

'By making use of off-the-shelf software products and techniques, a number of countries could dramatically enhance their export control capabilities to identify harmful end users,' Bunton said. 'If a country like Lithuania had better access to information about whether or not an end user had already been convicted in court of an export control violation, it might cause the government there not to grant a license.' Other items on the agenda included harmonization of export control lists; relationships with non-member nations of multilateral export control regimes, and whether membership should be extended to all significant producers of controlled goods.

Also discussed was the lack of secure information sharing, whether export control regimes should be consolidated into one entity and whether a committee should be formed among members of the four regimes to examine common issues, such as the development of export control standards. Conference participants also discussed development of export control cooperative exchanges. 'Partici-pants told us that they got more value from this conference, in terms of what to take home to enhance their own effectiveness, than from any other source,' he said.

David A. Biederman covers logistics and regulatory aspects of global trade that affect your bottom line. Please forward questions, suggestions and concerns to the author at