You can find it on children?s toys, household furnishings, stationery and, more recently, PCs. It is the ubiquitous CE mark which shows that the item complies with the relevant EC regulations for that category and is therefore safe, as defined by the EC.
The issue of CE marking for PCs has become a hot potato in the past few months, even though the legislation has been in force for a year. Warnings of huge fines and imprisonment for those who sell non-compliant machines, coupled with outcries about the expense of compliance testing for small assemblers, have given the subject headline-grabbing status.
If you assemble your own PCs then you must already be aware of the legislation on electromagnetic emissions and its effect on the PCs you build. PCs, like all other electrical and electronic appliances, need to comply with EMC regulations and should carry a CE mark to show their compliance. Manufacturers must be able to show they have exercised due diligence in ensuring that the equipment they sell complies with the regulations.
The debate about the fairness of the regulations and their relevance to PCs has been rumbling on for about 18 months. At each stage, different parties ? small independent assemblers, large manufacturers, EMC testing labs, the Department of Trade and Industry, computer trade bodies, IT lawyers, the Trading Standards Office ? each with their own particular self-interests, have expressed an opinion about the regulations.
The small independent assemblers say that the new legislation, which demands that PCs sold inside the EC comply with EMC regulations, puts an onerous and costly burden on them. Compliance is inappropriate for PCs and the cost of ensuring it will drive them out of business, they say.
Such operations are used to taking an order for a single machine or a batch of machines from a customer, and building them over the course of a few days from standard components. Stories abound of delays of up to three months in getting systems tested, of the process adding hundreds of pounds to the cost of building a batch of PCs, even that every individual PC must be tested.
Not surprisingly, small companies are looking for loopholes in the legislation. One so-called loophole, mooted about a year ago, is that as long as a PC is built from CE-marked EMC-compliant components, then it is inherently compliant, doesn?t need further testing and can legitimately carry the CE mark.
When this was put to the DTI, a definitive ruling was not forthcoming. ?Companies that have built computers in this way [claiming compliance by using CE-approved components] have claimed due diligence and Trading Standards Offices have not taken action,? said Andy Towers, DTI information officer for the EMC standard. ?But I wouldn?t want to stick up my hand and say they?re breaking the law.?
But more recent interpretations state that PC assemblers claiming inherent compliance through the use of CE-approved components are indeed breaking the law.
?The end product must also comply with the regulations,? says Trevor Asserson, litigation solicitor and partner with law firm Bird & Bird, which specialises in IT and intellectual copyright law.
?It is not sufficient to claim compliance by using only CE-approved components,? says Keith Warburton, executive director of the Personal Computer Association, which represents many of the manufacturers. ?The sum of the components may produce an unacceptable EMC profile.?
This is perfectly logical when applied to other areas. Otherwise foods products, for example, may use ingredients deemed safe for human consumption but may combine them in such a way or in concentrations which make them dangerous. And who would want their child to play with a dangerously constructed toy, even if the individual components are safe?
The legislation is intended to be self-regulatory, with the onus for compliance on the manufacturer. Thus enforcing it is complaint-led: if a customer buys a non-compliant PC, he or she complains to the local Trading Standards Office (TSO) in the same way as if a dealer had sold a car with clocked mileage. The TSO then takes the appropriate action, investigates and, if there is sufficient evidence, launches a prosecution against the vendor.
Selling non-compliant kit has been a criminal offence since 1 January 1996, although a year?s grace period has been applied, partly so that manufacturers can clear existing stock and partly to allow the implications of the legislation to settle in. But as of January 1997, any manufacturer found guilty of selling non-compliant machines is subject to a #5,000 fine and a three-month prison sentence.
For the big PC manufacturers that churn out thousands of machines a month from factories in Silicon Glen and the Irish Republic, the testing involved in ensuring compliance has little impact, either in terms of cost or time.
But second-tier and third-tier PC makers that have paid to have systems tested in EMC labs or have splashed out on their own testing equipment and set up their own labs, say that small assemblers that are ignoring the regulations are gaining an unfair commercial advantage.
At the PCA conference last September, the members ? many of which are middle-ranking manufacturers ? voted unanimously to remove this unfair advantage by demanding that the regulations be properly enforced.
Taking up the cudgel on behalf of his members, Warburton wrote to Richard Page MP, minister for small business. ?Many companies, especially smaller ones, are not bother-ing to comply and are thereby gaining a commercial advantage; others are misusing the CE mark in an illegal manner and the appropriate authorities seem unable or unwilling to identify or pursue the apparent wrongdoers ... We call on you and your colleagues to ensure that the laws that are now in place are properly enforced.?
Warburton was duly accused of using the new laws to hound his members? competitors. Stories spread of bounty-hunters who made test purchasers from independent assemblers and who would turn them over to the TSO if they were flouting the law. Surely this effort should be spent on changing an inappropriate law, not compelling the little man to obey.
But the law is in place and exists to protect the customer. It cannot be ignored just because it proves expensive or inconvenient to some vendors. Nor is it fair that some should comply with the regulations while others are allowed to continue ignoring them. Better that everyone complies. ?The other option, to have the regulations somehow removed, doesn?t stand a snowball?s chance in hell of happening,? says Warburton.
The fact is, as Warburton quite rightly points out, the time for resisting or changing the regulations is long gone.
When the EMC directive was first proposed in the late 1980s, it went through the process of consultation in the member countries before ratification. In the UK, the DTI took into account the views of industry ? via trade associations ? for several years before accepting the final draft of the regulations.
?The point is that the UK computer trade was not interested enough to organise itself so that it could have input into this legislation,? says Warburton. ?Thus the views of the defence electronics and office equipment industries, as voiced by the Federation of the Electronics Industry, were taken to be representative of the PC market as a whole ? and there was no one to disagree.?
But ensuring universal compliance among all PC builders is not as straightforward as it may appear. Local TSOs are under-resourced to police such a scheme.
?We have had enough of the light-touch enforcement approach,? says Ron Gainsford, assistant chief executive of the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards (Lacots). ?When a new piece of legislation comes out, what resources will the DTI throw into it? If the government wants enforcement that needs resources, you can?t expect to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I challenge the government to respond.?
The reason why no one can make a definitive judgement on the interpretation of the legislation is because English law is based on case precedent: until someone is prosecuted under the new rules and a judge interprets them in an English court, lawyers can only advise on the most likely interpretation. To a certain extent, all manufacturers are awaiting the first casualty before they can know where they really stand.
Nor can manufacturers look to other European nations for an interpretation, as each country adopts its own distinctive style when it come to enforcing the regulations.
?In the UK, everything is allowed until it is forbidden; in Germany, everything is forbidden until it is allowed; in Italy, everything is allowed,? says Gainsford.
Anyone manufacturing or selling PCs who is unsure about compliance should seek legal advice. Certainly, if your company is investigated by the TSO for making or selling non-compliant equipment, a specialist law firm should probably be your first call.
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