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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Other Y2K Problem

Washington, 8 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The current focus on the problems some older computers may generate when the calendar changes from December 31, 1999, to January 1, 2000, has distracted attention from another "Y2K problem" as this programming quirk is known: On almost the same day, the number of people outside the U.S. connected to the Internet will surpass the number of Americans on line.

And if current projections by the U.S. government hold, the number of non-American and non-English-speaking Internet users will swamp the number of American and English-language users by 2005 by a factor of three to one or more. In the process, a medium that many Americans have viewed as a vehicle for projecting their cultural values and integrating people into a single global village is likely to change into something very different.

In the next few years, the Internet become even more multi-lingual and multi-cultural than it is today, something most people welcome in principle. But at the same time, the Web will increasingly serve as a link between people of the same language and culture rather than among people in the same region. And that in turn will likely limit, the ability of some states to integrate certain minority groups and making it possible for certain countries and movements to project influence around the world in new and unexpected ways.

And that pattern is likely to lead ever more authoritarian governments to follow the efforts of China and Cuba to restrict the access their citizens have to the Internet and to reenergize efforts by some African and Asian countries to promote a new international information order that would seek to limit the free flow of information through this and other channels.

Last week, however, this other Y2K problem, as the Year 2000 computer glitch is known, continued to take back seat to the problems many people have long been worried about and to the progress countries have made or not made in overcoming the inability of some older computers to distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900.

A recent British study distributed last week suggests that Russia's Y2K problem could generate civil unrest and have spill-over effects on Western financial operations and energy flows. According to a Conflict Studies Research Center paper, approximately two-thirds of Russian computer systems could "experience some level of interruption after 31 December 1999."

Moreover, the study suggests, the situation is unlikely to improve in the coming months because Moscow lacks the more than $32 billion needed to correct the problems, a figure equal to more than 7 percent of the Russian Federation's Gross Domestic Product.

At the other end of the scale, the U.S. Federal Reserve System reported that U.S. banks were rapidly bringing their computers into line with new requirements and suggested that most consumers were unlikely to experience any problems at all. Equally optimistic reports about airlines and shipping in the U.S. were also released.

But amidst American optimism about this Y2K issue has arisen some American nervousness about the other Y2K problem: the rise of non-American and non-English-language dominance of the Internet in the next century and its meaning for both the United States and the world. So far, these concerns fall into three broad categories.

First, increasingly non-English Internet activities may make it less likely that immigrant groups in the United States will learn English and integrate into American society in the traditional way. According to one survey, one in every three Hispanic speakers in the U.S. now goes on line, with an ever greater percentage of them choosing Spanish rather than English-language sites.

To meet this demand, companies from Yahoo! to Bloomberg Business Services are offering Spanish-language sites to attract Spanish speakers. And to the extent that Spanish speakers can use such sites for business as well as education and entertainment, at least some of them may have less incentive to learn English.

Second, national governments may be able to reach out to co-ethnic groups abroad through the Internet, encouraging the latter to maintain their ties with the homeland and even to promote its interests with the host state.

Governments have always done this, but the proliferation of Websites and Internet traffic in other languages, something most students of the Internet had largely ignored until recently, gives them a new means of leverage, one that host governments may find it very difficult to counter. And that possibility has led some American commentators to speak of a "virtual regionalization" of the world.

And third, both these processes have shattered the self-confident assumptions that the Internet in every way would promote integration and have raised the specter that the Web and its related media may in fact promote social and political fragmentation instead.

At one level, of course, this represents a belated recognition that this new medium just like all earlier ones can have either a positive or a negative impact and that different people will evaluate its consequences differently. But at another, it reflects an increasing appreciation of the remarkable ability of the Internet to quickly shift gears and push historical development in new and unexpected directions.

Whatever happens around the world next January 1, ever more people are likely to focus on this second Y2K problem for a long time to come.