Computer maker Dell has hit upon a direct way of ensuring customers are not planning to use hardware bought from its e-commerce sites for nefarious purposes: it simply asks them.
As part of the export compliance process on Dell's US and UK Web sites, the site asks the buyer four questions: who will be the product's end user, what is the intended use, whether the products will be exported (and if so, to what countries) and whether the products will "be used in connection with weapons of mass destruction, i.e. nuclear applications, missile technology, or chemical or biological weapons purposes".
A Dell spokeswoman said the questions were a routine part of the sale process, and were required by any US corporation to comply with export regulations. Companies are not allowed to sell products destined for countries that face export restrictions. Dell says it will not process an order which "specifies an address of a freight forwarder, warehouse, distribution center, airport or hotel".
The procedure also allows Dell to help customers who may need advice, the company said. "Should a customer indicate that they wish to export or that they intend to use Dell product for nuclear end-uses or chemical and biological weapons, for example, Dell will contact the customer to inform them of the restrictions on the end-uses of our product," a representative said.
Other computer makers generally make do by referring buyers to a "terms of sale" page, with terms such as "you agree to comply with all Export Laws".
Dell's terms of sale on its UK site are more specific. The company reminds buyers that the product may not be sold to countries with export restrictions or to "a user involved in weapons of mass destruction or genocide without the prior consent of the US or competent EU government".
On the company's US site, the company further defines "weapons of mass destruction" as "without limitation, activities related to the design, development, production or use of nuclear weapons, materials, or facilities, missiles or the support of missile projects, and chemical or biological weapons".
Dell is also careful to shield itself from liability in cases where its products are used in a "high-risk activity", including "the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communications systems, air traffic control, medical systems, life support or weapons systems". Dell said its telephone-sales operators are not required to query customers on the intended use of their products.
Dell, which only sells direct, is the No. 2 PC maker worldwide and is looking to rapidly increase its sales outside the US and Europe, and has said it sees particular market-share potential in China.