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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Make corporations pay for Y2K problems

The Y2K computer problem, in an increasingly computer- reliant world, will begin to reveal its dimensions, small or large, on January 1, 2000.

While the various predictions have ranged all over the proverbial lot, from catastrophes to glitches here and there, the cost of fixing an entirely preventable situation in the United States alone will be over $350 billion. The financial conglomerate, Citigroup, Inc. has spent just under one billion dollars fixing its own computer system.

Remember, the early computer companies adopted a shortcut and used just two digits (such as 58 or 64) to save two digits of space by not writing 1958 or 1964.
It is debatable, certainly by the Seventies, whether there were any real economic savings from this numerical abbreviation. But the “bug” continued and embedded itself just about everywhere, aided by software companies and consultants who appeared frozen in time, thinking, as the Seventies and Eighties ended, and the nineties matured, that the year 2000 was still in a Buck Rogers future.

For a society that harps about the “responsibility” of the poor, will the affluent corporate perpetrators be held responsible for these enormous already incurred costs, not to mention what will happen next month?

Clearly, lots of companies over the past five decades looked the other way, as they were two-digiting their customers’ software and other products. Some are no longer in business or have sold their businesses to others; others are hugely prominent, such as Microsoft and IBM. (Imagine the uproar if the government had caused such a costly boondoggle.) Some large customers demanded free Y2K fixes while others expect reimburesment for their costs.

Congress and President Clinton obliged the perpetrators earlier this year by passing legislation limiting the liability of the Y2K vendors.

For months now, the newspapers and magazines have been filled with thousands of articles about various industries’ Y2K compliance problems and shortfalls; railroads, steel, autos, refineries, banking, insurance, utilities, etc. More articles covered the efforts and tardiness of government agencies the Pentagon, the FAA, the Social Security Administration. Who’s ahead, who’s behind features appeared daily. But very, very sparse press attention has been paid to who’s responsible and how to make them accountable.

This is not the first time that corporations or industries have wrecked knowing and foreseeable costs or havoc on innocent customers or users of their technologies.

Even after General Motors was convicted by a federal district court in Chicago, in the late nineteen forties, of criminally conspiring to violate the antitrust laws by buying up mass transit systems (mostly trolleys) in 28 metropolitan areas and tearing up the tracks so as to push for more highways and vehicles, the court fined the automaker just $5000.

Every commuting day, millions of Americans are paying for that corporate crime over fifty years later.

A society that allows corporate escapees to evade accountability for deliberate or foreseeable damage will certainly have to endure future repeats of such misbehavior.

For now, the Y2K waiting game is almost over and the consensus is that most of the trouble will likely occur overseas in lesser developed countries that, it should be noted, supply our economies with their products via computerized systems somewhere along the line.

For almost two years, Michael S. Hyatt’s “Millennium Bug Update,” out of Torrington, Connecticut, has been regularly compiling the warnings about Y2K from the mouths of business and government officials themselves. In a “final thoughts” column of the newsletter’s final issue, Bill Dunn cautions the optimists to retain some wariness. He writes: “If everything is so rosy, why are nuclear facilities, chemical plants, and railroads taking the unprecedented step of shutting down before midnight strikes on December 31st? Why are officials in Massachusetts planning to spend New Year’s Eve in a concrete bunker 40 feet below ground?

Mr. Dunn then delivers three cautions. One reminds readers of the traditional delays in most software projects whether new developments or system upgrades. “The Millennium Bug is proving to be no different. Countless Y2K remediation project deadlines have been missed,” he writes.

Second, he warns about the risky side to the efficient “just in time” inventory systems whose disruption could leave manufacturers and other users, who no longer keep days or weeks of inventories, in disarray. Finally, he warns about those technical employees who are not being fully candid with their bosses about their Y2K problems.

To Bill Dunn and Michael Hyatt, I ask: why is this your last issue? Do you close down just before everything starts happening or not happening, and the various computer pundits start boasting or explaining their miscues? Stick around for a couple more issues.