Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swatting the 2000 Bug

As the sun moves westward on Jan. 1, 2000, the date will shift silently within millions of computerized systems from '99 to '00. These systems and the legacy software that has not been fixed will be left thinking it is still the 20th century - not 2000, but 1900, potentially causing havoc in defense, transportation, power generation, manufacturing, telecommunications, finance, government, education and health care around the globe.

The key to eradicating the "millennium bug," or Y2K as it is called, is to perceive the problem not merely as a technical issue, but as a diplomatic challenge that will require careful international coordination and an integrated information campaign to educate world publics.

That is why the UN conference of Y2K which opened Friday in New York is so important. For the first time, the heads of Y2K national programs will assemble to address a range of issues, including international cooperation on contingency planning.

Experts stress that the millennium bug is not an inherently difficult problem to fix. But in an age when computer interactions span continents in seconds, the domino effect of a system malfunction in one country could cause havoc almost immediately in others.

It is the state of the problem and its transnational scope that poses the challenge. In our networked world, the system is only as good as its weakest link.

One corporation in one country may be Y2K-ready. But what about its subsidiaries, suppliers, distributors and clients - overseas as well as at home? And what about the banking and financial system on which it may rely or the government agency that may be a source of vital information?

Currently, there are wide variations in Y2K preparedness. In Russia, a recent survey revealed that a significant percentage of major corporations there had never heard of it. In China and Indonesia, a similar study indicated that fewer than half the companies there would be Y2K-compliant by the end of the next year at current rates of progress. In much of Latin America and Africa, the problem is even more serious.

Even in Western Europe and North America, much work remains to be done. In the United States, for example, even though major corporations and government agencies are making rapid progress, businesses remain vulnerable with billions of lines of code still left to fix. The estimated price tag for solving the problem could top $75 billion.

The cost for smaller countries with less developed economies and more rudimentary infrastructures will be much lower, but making a computer bug a national priority in areas of the world where life is a daily struggle for survival will be, to say the least, a tough sell.

A coordinated global strategy must include assistance to those nations without the means to adequately address the problem. That is not merely good policy; it is enlightened self-interest.

It is important to stress, however, that the Y2K problem is not a technical issue alone. World publics must be adequately informed not only about the scale and importance of the problem, but also about its nature so that the inevitable disruptions that will occur sometime, somewhere in the first days of the year 2000 do not trigger worldwide trepidation, or even mass panic.

This is why governments, and governments acting together through the United Nations, have such an important role to play in navigating the world safely through this problem.

In the United States, President Bill Clinton's Council on Year 2000 Conversion has been the launchpad for an extensive education campaign. The U.S. Congress has been doing its part as well, passing measures such as a recent bill to limit liability of companies that are Y2K-transparent.

But more remains to be done and the United States learns a lot from France, Britain and other countries that have adopted their own measures to deal with the problem. Indeed, one of the pluses of a global strategy is that we can all learn from each other and pool the best approaches and remedies. Where Y2K is concerned, no one country has a monopoly on the best ideas.

Already, international organizations such as the World Bank, and regional groups such as the Organization of American States and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development have been hard at work sharing information and raising the profile of the issue. But the UN conference is the first opportunity to involve all governments in forging common solutions to the millennium bug challenge. We must ensure that the necessary groundwork is done now.

Jonathan Spalter is an associate director at the U.S. Information Agency and chairman of Clinton's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion working group on international public diplomacy. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.