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Global Y2K attack goes online

The G7, in cooperation with several other international bodies, plans to launch an online conference addressing the Year 2000 problem.

In an unprecedented move to focus global attention on the Year 2000 problem, the G7, in cooperation with several other international bodies, plans to launch an online conference in June, organizers said today.

Under direct supervision of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the International Year 2000-- Information Technology Virtual Conference is being touted as a forum for the international community to share problems, progress, and solutions relating to the Year 2000 bug.

Organizers said they had planned to hold a traditional three to four day international conference in Europe, but decided to hold one single forum on the Web because of logistical limitations and time constraints.

"We thought a virtual conference would be faster, reach more of an international audience, and it could be up and running for months rather than days," Gary Winters, a senior policy analyst at the GSA and coordinator of the conference, said.

The G7, now G8 with the addition of Russia at last year's summit in Denver, consists of state leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, and Italy. The body traditionally holds yearly summits on the global economy, politics, and other international crises. In coordination with the GSA, the organization recently started The Group of Seven (G7) Government On-Line (GOL), of which the virtual conference is an off-shoot.

Although still in the works, the goal of the conference is to spark international partnerships and to stimulate a global awareness about the Year 2000 issue, Winters explained.

But the conference has already drawn some criticism from one of the first trumpeters of the Year 2000 problem. "We don't need more awareness. We need global policy," said Edward Yardeni, chief economist of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. "We need to build contingency plans now. All these awareness initiatives distract from staying focused."

Winters defends the conference by defining what he considers awareness. "It involves a sharing of experiences and solutions to get the job done. It needs to be a collaborative effort. [The virtual conference] will help us know what we can do to pull together to solve the problem," he said.

The format of the conference will be divided into four areas: Year 2000 global issues, which will be broken down into suggested Y2K business sectors and industries; a question and answers area to respond to specific white papers posted in the global issues area; a section for countries to submit progress reports on their individual Y2K compliance programs; and a collection of other Y2K Web sites.

Winters said chat-rooms may be incorporated in the future, but said he didn't want to encourage non-Y2K commentary.

The Year 2000 problem, or the millennium bug, stems from shortcuts taken by computer programmers in the 1970s and 1980s, who tried to save valuable computer memory by abbreviating dates to the last two digits. Many computers still use this two-digit formula and are in danger of crashing when they enter the next century because they will interpret the year 2000 as a meaningless 00.

If computers are not reprogrammed, the consequences could be calamitous. Experts say the bug could shut down companies, jam communications, and even freeze world trade if it is not eradicated.

The GSA is already getting requests from governments, economists, and Year 2000 speakers who want to submit white papers and other material to the site, he said.

One of the first requests came from Year 2000 bug pundit Peter DeJager, whose office is also assisting the GSA in the development of the conference's format. Yardeni has been asked to take part as well, Winter said. Another 15 to 20 other requests have come from Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Current plans call for participants to submit an outline of suggested topics and progress reports by April 24. Once received, the suggested material will be reviewed and authors notified of their selection. Once notified, those people will also be informed of the conference procedures, and will have approximately six weeks to submit a final paper, or report, to be posted on the virtual conference Web site in June.

"Our attempt is to start this type of thinking in other countries where it hasn't taken off as much," said Winters, referring to countries in Asia and Eastern Europe that have been criticized in the media for not taking the issue seriously enough. "There is a responsibility on the part of developed countries to get the word down to less developed ones."