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1997 In Review: Information Technology Ticks Toward The Millennium

Washington, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A ticking technological time-bomb, virtual diplomacy, the unauthorized sale of advanced American super computers to Russia, a ground-breaking legal case, and a diagnosis for Internet addiction made 1997 a busy year for nations cruising the information superhighway.

One of the most widely discussed technological issues of 1997 was the so- called "millennium bomb" -- or the failure of certain computer software to distinguish between the 20th and 21st centuries.

Experts say that in the 1960's and 1970's when special microchips were designed, technicians used questionable cost-cutting methods. In order to save space and money, the technicians programmed the chips to recognize years as two digits instead of four. For example, when the computer reads the digits 9 and 7, it determines the year is 1997.

So, unless the computers are reprogrammed, the year 2000 will register as 00 -- or 1900. Experts say this is certain to create a number of logical inconsistencies, causing the computers to either erase the data, malfunction, behave in erratic and unpredictable ways, or shut down altogether.

Since most major institutions in the world -- including banks, hospitals, schools, transportation systems, communications arrays, government agencies, businesses and the military -- are connected to some kind of computer network, a failure of this magnitude could be globally disastrous.

Fixing the problem is expensive. "The Economist" magazine reported that Bank of Boston -- America's 15th largest bank -- has estimated the cost of addressing its own millennium problem at tens of millions of dollars.

A variety of proposals and solutions were discussed this year in the U.S. Congress, but American businesses are not just waiting for the government to act.

Peter de Jager, a Canadian consultant and one of the leading experts on the 'millennium bomb', says at least 90 percent of American businesses are seriously examining or working on the problem.

Great Britain is also greatly concerned and has brought together a group of experts in a "Taskforce 2000" -- to determine the extent of the problem and make recommendations to the government.

The rest of Europe and the world seems to be taking a more relaxed approach. Three times this year the European Union telecoms council declined to mount an awareness campaign on the problem, presumably because it believes the danger is minimal.

But the 'millennium bomb' is not an issue that will simply go away. Both the U.S. and Great Britain have vowed to continue urging countries to more aggressively address the matter next year.

Also of interest in 1997 was an international conference in Washington to explore the way the Internet and other global communications systems are changing the way nations conduct their diplomatic relations.

The conference, entitled "Virtual Diplomacy," was sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a Washington-based independent organization that promotes research, education and training on international peacemaking.

Richard Solomon, the president of USIP and a former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, said at the conference that the main challenge facing today's diplomats is to determine how society will evolve along the complex international pathways of the Internet and the global information superhighway, and how new information technology can be utilized to better manage conflict.

Solomon said: "With close to 70 million people in over 100 countries connected to the Internet, these technologies are paving the way for on-line international coalitions who are influencing international politics and policies, humanitarian missions, and globalizing economic growth."

Solomon also said that computer networks are blurring traditional territorial boundaries and cultural impasses by integrating international communities and bringing people together on the basis of similar interests, regardless of their physical and geographic separation.

Computer technology was also the source of international conflict in 1997. U.S. officials announced in October that a Russian nuclear weapons laboratory secretly obtained 16 advanced American super computers late last year, using a Moscow-based middleman to evade strict U.S. export controls.

Russian officials denied that the purchase was done clandestinely and said they simply bought equipment that had become available on the world market. These officials acknowledge that they currently have the 16 advanced super computers at the Chelyabinsk and Arzamas Weapons nuclear laboratory, located about 500 kilometers east of Moscow. Arzamas-16 is the closed city where Russia designed its hydrogen bomb.

Experts say the computers could help Russia do research on nuclear and conventional arms, but would not enable them to develop new types of nuclear weapons without additional testing.

The U.S. State Department says the U.S. regards the unauthorized sale as a "very serious matter" and has raised it at the highest levels of the Russian government. In the meantime, an investigation of the matter is currently underway, directed by the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Customs Service.

The Internet was also the focus of a landmark legal case this year in the United States. In the first legal case regarding the Internet to ever reach America's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Internet the greatest level of American constitutional protection by striking down a 1996 law passed by the U.S. Congress which tried to control what is seen and heard in cyberspace.

The law, called the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton and forbade the distribution of indecent or "patently offensive" materials to children on the Internet.

But in a dramatic ruling last June, the law was declared unconstitutional by the Court because it infringed upon Americans' right to free expression. The Court ruled that the law unnecessarily suppressed freedom of speech addressed to adults, and added that the government may not reduce the adult population to "only what is fit for children." The Court added that restricting what a child views on the Internet is the responsibility of parents, not the government.

Overall, the year 1997 witnessed a rapid growth in information technology around the world.

According to statistics provided by the U.S. President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, information technology is a global industry of about $730 billion a year.

The statistics show that the U.S. leads the world in terms of computing power and controls about 60 percent of all Internet assets. The U.S. also connects to the Internet more times per day than any other nation in the world -- 200 million hours each day.

Still, more people from every corner of the globe are connecting to the Internet than ever before.

According to a study conducted by a private organization called Network Wizards, the number of Internet hosts (a computer connected to the Internet) has grown from 376,000 in 1991 to more than 16 million in 1997.

Experts say the technology information industry is lucrative and growing. Highly skilled Americans are drawn to the industry because of the intellectual challenge and the high pay, says a recent study.

The study -- called "Cybernation" -- determined that in 1996 technology companies in the U.S. employed 4.3 million workers and paid them an average salary of $49,600 annually -- 73 percent higher than the average private-sector wage. The study also says the technology industry led U.S. exports in 1996 and was the largest manufacturing employer in America.

Those statistics are not lost on high-ranking U.S. officials. In a bid to keep America's position strong in cyberspace, President Clinton announced in July that he wants to keep the Internet a "global free-trade zone." Clinton asked governments around the world to refrain from taxing electronic business transactions and encouraged private sectors to develop the Internet as a commercial marketplace.

As part of his plan, Clinton issued a report called "A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce" which lists the U.S.'s guiding principles for commerce on the Internet and suggests an agenda for international discussions and agreements on the topic.

According to Ira Magaziner, a senior White House official and the architect of Clinton's report, Internet commerce could account for 10 to 20 percent of global retail sales within a decade.

As part of America's international agenda, Clinton said that the U.S. Trade Representative will work with the Geneva-based World Trade Organization to garner worldwide support and build upon the Information Technology Agreement and Global Telecommunications Agreement which eliminated tariffs and reduced trade barriers on more than one million dollars in products and services.

However, just to show how fragile the structure of the world's primary arena for electronic commerce is, a simple mistake by a computer technician last July managed to abruptly halt a good deal of traffic on the Internet for one day.

The breakdown occurred in July at a U.S.-based company called Network Solutions, Inc. which has the primary responsibility of maintaining the equivalent of a master telephone book for cyberspace.

Reportedly the company's night technician ignored alarms that some address files were corrupted and released the files to computer servers around the world. The immediate result was that hundreds of web pages on the Internet simply disappeared or became inaccessible to Internet browsers, creating global confusion and widespread chaos.

Although the company was able to correct the problem within a day, experts estimate that a countless number of electronic mails bounced, thousands of Internet browsers were turned away from web pages, and millions of dollars in potential sales had been lost.

The glitch raised serious questions about the growing dependency of the world's population on the Internet while highlighting the vast network's vulnerability.

The Internet also earned a place in the medical journals in 1997. The American Psychological Association announced that they now believe the Internet can be as addicting as drugs and gambling, and have assigned a clinical name for the disorder -- "Pathological Internet Use."

Psychologist Kimberly Young defines the Internet addict as someone who spends more than 38 hours a week on-line. Young says that of those considered to have the disorder, the highest at risk were the unemployed, journalists, secretaries and teachers.