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Public policy body addresses Y2K

A nonprofit think tank demands more leadership from public policy makers, cooperation between industries, and better coverage by the media.

A nonprofit think tank is demanding more leadership from public policy makers, cooperation between industries in the private sector, and better coverage by the media in regards to the Year 2000 technology problem.

The Discovery Institute, a public policy body, issued a policy paper on the Y2K issue following an all day conference yesterday where members of the government, tech industry, and media discussed their roles in addressing the Year 2000 technology problem.

The conference held in Washington was titled "Y2K vs. American Prosperity," and delved into the finer points of public policy implications of the millennium bug and their impact on the nation's industries and economy. It was the first conference the institute has held on the millennium bug, although a number of fellows and staff have been researching the issue over the past 18 months.

Conference planning has resulted in the publication of one policy paper thus far from the Discovery Institute, with more to follow. The Discovery inquiry titled "How should public policy confront the Y2K emergency?" was written by Discovery adjunct fellow Roland Cole, executive director of the Software Patent Institute. He addressed a number of issues: First, does the Year 2000 computer challenge fall into a class where government action, or at least collective action with government as a primary player, is necessary? Secondly, if it does, what forms of action make sense? Then it answers those questions with six policy suggestions.

"What we're trying to do with this conference and this paper is to provide civic leadership,'' said Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman, in a statement yesterday, explaining the urgent need to focus on the policy implications of the Y2K issue.

"The kinds of action items that came out of today's conference are vitally important issues that have to be addressed. In the private sector, the technology industry should lead by contributing time and resources to assist society through education and remediation. Perhaps some sort of nationally backed insurance pool is needed. The media, meanwhile, can help most by covering the Y2K issue thoroughly, not only by sorting out the facts, but also by reporting the debates," he said.

The conference and the white paper put forth several specific ideas for government action, including "fast-tracking'' or some kind of expedited licensing scheme. Once the technology is developed, the last thing anyone wants is for the developer to be able to block its use.

"If your technology appears key to preventing the spread of Y2K problems, the U.S. may want it licensed, right now, with the idea that it will settle with you later for the public benefit you provided by having your property taken,'' Chapman said.

In the past, the federal government, especially the Clinton administration, has been criticized by officials within its ranks and outsiders for not being aggressive enough on the Y2K issue, despite President's Clinton's national call for action earlier this year.

One of the most outspoken critics of the White House for what he thinks is a major flaw in leadership is Steve Forbes, publisher and expected presidential candidate in 2000, who spoke at the conference.

Although calls to Forbes' offices were not returned before press time, an editorial he wrote for the October 5 issue of Forbes Magazine illustrates the expected presidential hopeful's feelings on Y2K public policy.

"Congress must immediately pass two measures to help us deal with the Year 2000 computer crises," he wrote. "The bills provide essential, legal safe harbors for American businesses. Trial lawyers, like sharks smelling blood in the water, are poised to launch one of the most extensive and expensive legal attacks in American history, through massive class action lawsuits against companies that are trying in good faith to fix their Y2K computer problems."

Such legislation, Forbes argues, will help parties come up with "innovative ways to attack Y2K problems The new laws will also allow the public to get a better feel for how companies are coping."

The institute organized the one-day conference with backing from such sponsors as Microsoft, Boeing, GTE, Oracle, the Information Technology Association of America, and others.