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World: Official Urges Countries To Address Millennium Bug

Washington, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- John Koskinen, the U.S.'s top official on the year 2000 computer problem, says it is critical for the international community to come together to meet the challenges of the world's most serious computer crisis.

Koskinen, who is chairman of the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion, made the comment Tuesday (July 28) in Washington at a press conference.

The year 2000 problem, also known as the "millennium bug," dates back to the 1960's and 1970's when technicians used now-questionable cost-cutting methods to create microchips. 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 8, it determines the year is 1998.

So, unless 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 computers to malfunction or shut down altogether.

Since most major institutions around the world, including banks, businesses, transportation systems and government agencies are connected to computers, some experts say a failure of any one of these systems could seriously disrupt the global economy.

According to Koskinen, the U.S. is actively urging other nations to confront and resolve the issue. He says that earlier this summer, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent a cable to each American embassy around the world instructing them to inquire about the host nation's preparations to deal with the issue.

Of particular concern, says Koskinen, are areas such as finance, transportation and telecommunications which are globally interconnected.

Explains Koskinen: "We've discovered increasingly that not only do we have a global world and a global economy, we have an interrelationship, internationally as well as domestically, where increasing amounts of exchange data and financial services depend upon the electronic operations and activities, so that we're all increasingly connected. And, as the saying goes, no person and no country is an island unto itself."

Koskinen says he has twice been to the United Nations (UN), appealing for the organization's help on the issue. He says he was gratified when the UN passed a resolution about a month and a half ago, calling on all nations to seriously address the problem.

Koskinen also says the World Bank is now organizing 20 regional conferences around the globe on the millennium bug. He adds that James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, has written personally to the head of state of all 183 countries which belong to the bank.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also agreed to urge all countries to pay attention to the issue, he says.

Koskinen says to further garner international cooperation on the financial front, the U.S. Federal Reserve is working in tandem with the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements to help central bankers around the world to fix their systems. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has also been working with international market regulators.

Says Koskinen: "Every (U.S.) agency that belongs to an international organization is reaching out to that organization, urging them to take action. So, for instance, the Department of Transportation is reaching out to the International Air Traffic Control Association, trying to get them to ensure that you can fly, not only into American airports, but airports around the world."

The urgency of the matter may finally be getting through to some countries. On Tuesday Russia officially launched its own campaign to address the computer crisis. Alexander Krupnov, Chairman of the State Communications Commission announced that it could cost Russia up to 500 million dollars to fix the computer problem and avoid a national catastrophe.

Krupnov said his committee has drawn up an action plan that includes offering private firms and state agencies a step-by-step guide to handle the problem.