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G8 urged to tackle Year 2000 bug

The Senate Special Committee on the millennium bug urges the G8 Summit to make the problem a top priority in discussions this weekend.

As the kick-off ceremonies begin for the G8 Summit today, the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 problem has called on the U.S. delegation to the gathering to make Y2K a top priority during discussions this weekend.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem warned that the failure of industrialized nations to prepare for the computer bug poses a significant threat to the U.S. economy.

"We are greatly troubled about the seeming lack of urgency of the major industrialized nations in preparing to deal with the Year 2000 computer problem and hope that you will make this issue a top priority for discussions," the committee urged in a letter signed by a majority of its members.

The committee also asked that it be provided with a report of any discussions on the Year 2000 problem when administration officials return from Birmingham, England, where the summit is being held.

"These talks, and others like them, will produce invaluable information for the United States as we work to avert the potential disasters associated with the Year 2000," Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the committee, said in a statement.

An administration spokesman, unaware of the letter, said that Y2K will be brought up during discussions this weekend. He wouldn't give any details on what, if anything, would be said during the meetings.

And in a published interview with the British newspaper The Guardian today, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the Y2K and a number of proposals to handle the problem will be on his agenda.

Millions of computers and embedded chips--some central to financial markets, air traffic control systems, and even running elevators and heating systems in office buildings--cannot distinguish between 1900 and 2000 because years have been expressed in two-digit shorthand in old programming. The glitch, known as the Y2K bug, may trigger widespread disruptions because not all computers will be fixed by December 31, 1999.

With the world's computer networks largely linked, the use of data that has been converted to the new millennium standard improperly--or not converted at all--could infect newly reprogrammed systems.

"While we are by no means sanguine about the readiness of all segments of the American economy, we are particularly concerned about the potential impact of international economic disruptions," the committee wrote in the letter. "We strongly believe that the United States must exercise its leadership in the global community to keep such disruptions and dislocations to a minimum."

The committee described the problem as not being limited to just the financial sector. It extends into every part of the global economy. Breakdowns in international air traffic control, foreign oil and gas pipelines, or in the global telecommunications network all have serious repercussions for the United States, the committee warned.

According to a recent CIA assessment, the threat of turmoil is greatest among those unaware of the key role that bits and bytes play in providing essential services and bringing goods to markets, even in less developed countries.

According to the CIA, even the most prepared countries, Canada, Britain, and Australia, are about six months behind the United States in preparing their systems for the switch.

The rest of western Europe, led by the Scandinavians, comes next, six to nine months behind the United States. Europe's job is compounded by the need to reprogram millions of computers for next January's introduction in 11 countries of the Euro, the new unified currency.

The CIA felt Europe probably would be unable to complete both reprogramming jobs "effectively" in time.

Japan, China, Hong Kong, most other Pacific Rim countries, and Russia are about nine months to a year behind schedule in eliminating the bug, according to the CIA.

Reuters contributed to this report.