US government reportedly ponders crimping China's use of RISC-V

Permissive licenses may be about to collide with geopolitics

The United States Department of Commerce is reportedly considering lawmakers' calls to make it harder for China to use the RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA).

RISC-V is permissively licensed – developers can access the ISA for free and use it to create proprietary or open source implementations for commercial or other applications as they see fit.

That license means anyone, anywhere in the world, can work with RISC-V – including chip designers in China.

In late 2023, members of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) expressed concern that the Uncle Sam's many efforts to make it hard for advanced chips to reach China are being undermined by RISC-V.

"While the benefits of open source collaboration on RISC-V promise to be significant, it can only be realized when contributors are working with the sole aim of improving the technology, and not aiding the geopolitical interests of the PRC," the representatives wrote in a November 2023 letter that called for creation of a "robust ecosystem for open source collaboration among the US and our allies while ensuring the PRC is unable to benefit from that work."

That's code for "Banning sales of chips to China won't work if Beijing can build its own using RISC-V." The Committee members therefore called on US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo to consider what might be done about RISC-V.

RISC-V International CEO Calista Redmond defended open source collaboration, on grounds that it advances the development technology and leads to the creation of very useful things like USB and Ethernet, and pointed out that her own org is a mere publisher of a standard.

But according to a Tuesday report from Reuters, the Commerce Department is now examining RISC-V.

The newswire has sighted a letter from the Department that states it is "working to review potential risks and assess whether there are appropriate actions under Commerce authorities that could effectively address any potential concerns."

It's not clear what actions might or even could be taken. Their potential effectiveness is also debatable, as US tech bans haven't stopped China importing banned GPUs, while various actors have developed numerous evasion routes to bring banned tech into the Middle Kingdom.

The Register has even covered smugglers who packed GPUs alongside live lobsters and shifted both across the border from Hong Kong to China. We also asked the open source community if it feels an obligation to alter its practices to align them with international sanctions – they're not keen.

Whatever the Commerce Department decides, China is already forging ahead with RISC-V. Local chip design firm Loongson has used the ISA to create things like desktop PC chips currently being rolled out to Chinese schools, and a server-grade processor that Alibaba Cloud plans to put into production later in 2024.

China has made it plain that it wants more of this sort of thing, by approving only processors it can control to some extent – because their architectures allow customization – and issuing its own bans on the import of US tech. ®

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