Internet is Y2K ready... almost

Unlike US government computers, the Internet infrastructure has no year 2000 readiness oversight.

The Internet's core structure is expected to remain operational during the transition to the new year, unaffected by the infamous year 2000 technology problem, a White House official said Tuesday after meeting with a group of Internet experts.

That optimistic outlook, however, contains a soft-white underbelly: uncertainty. All assessments of Internet readiness addressing the year 2000 problem are merely taken for granted; there are no independent audits to confirm the Internet's readiness, the official admitted. "The large number of participants in the Internet community make it impossible to rule out the existence of date change problems," said John Koskinen, who heads up White House year 2000 readiness efforts. Koskinen met with Internet experts Tuesday to discuss the possible impact the year 2000 problem might have on Internet operations.

However, because of the Internet is a global network, made up of some 200,000 networks and an untold number of individual computers "behind" those networks, any failures are likely to be temporary "glitches", said Donald Heath, president of the Internet Society, which oversees the development of technology standards used throughout the Internet. "The Internet will route around the damage," he said, borrowing from a well-worn Internet maxim.

Traditionally the Internet has functioned as a loose coalition of engineers and volunteers, all working together to ensure that the system is kept up and running. Common standards, used and known by all, help streamline that effort, Heath said.

But that loose coalition is as much a bane as it is a blessing. "The basic core of the Internet appears likely -- extremely likely -- to function without problems" come the new year, said Koskinen, who is chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. However, Koskinen cautioned that such a loose structure also means that "no one can guarantee there won't be some glitches and some problems anywhere".

Yet much of the expressed "readiness" of the Internet community to handle the looming year 2000 event is simply taken as a word of faith.

"The Internet is not a monolith," said Barbara Dooley, president of the Commercial Internet Exchange Association. "We have no way of knowing or verifying the preparedness of individual providers."

This catch-as-catch-can attitude comes in stark contrast to federal year 2000 readiness programs. Federal assertions of readiness are independently audited, Koskinen said. For example, the Pentagon's inspector general discovered, during an audit, that the military was overstating its year 2000 readiness efforts. In addition, Koskinen said, some in the private sector are subjecting their year 2000 efforts to audits; some 80 percent of the electric power industry's year 2000 efforts have been audited, Koskinen said.

But that's not the case with the Internet, Koskinen said. "These people are entrepreneurs, and we don't have the authority to force them to do anything," he said.

Awareness of the potential problem "is as far as you can go", said Heath. "No external agency is going around to each possible provider of separate Internets and testing them. It is self-testing," Heath said.

Such a process isn't likely to be very comforting; the Internet's computer security efforts are handled in much the same manner. Centralised efforts are made to inform various system administrators of new security threats, and solutions are provided, but as history shows, many administrators, for whatever reason, simply never take the time to address the security problems.