Feds say vendors are stonewalling requests for compliance info

Federal agency efforts to obtain information from telecommunications vendors on whether equipment is Year 2000-compliant have been hindered by the reluctance of industry to share information, sources at a federal government conference said last week.

Bill Nichols, the Year 2000 telecommunications program manager at the General Services Administration, said vendors' reluctance to provide information on the Year 2000 compliance of their products has limited his attempts to create a database designed to help agencies prepare for the millennium change. He said most companies fear that posting information on GSA's World Wide Web-based database could make them liable if agencies ultimately experience Year 2000 problems after acting on information posted by vendors.

John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said he is aware that vendors' attorneys are advising them not to put the information on the Web because of liability issues. But he said he believes that if a Year 2000 problem occurs involving a company that withheld information from the government, that company would not fare well in a liability suit anyway.

"My sense is that is the wrong advice," Koskinen said. "The best defense against liability is having the systems work."

Michael Cooke, a systems engineer at Northern Telecom who spoke at a GSA Year 2000 Compliance Conference last week, said his hope to share information with customers has been frustrated by company lawyers who will not allow him to release data such as "impact statements" providing details on whether a particular piece of equipment is Year 2000-compliant.Cooke said he had tentatively told Nichols that he would provide the information but was subsequently prohibited by Nortel officials.

"The lawyers got in the way, Cooke said"

Nichols said agencies need this information to determine the risk associated with a piece of hardware and whether it needs to be replaced or upgraded. "Unless we know what the problems are, we won't know what we need to do," Nichols said. "It's up to the legal people to resolve this. It just hampers the process.

"Nichols said he understands the predicament that companies face when it comes to liability questions, adding that vendors are much more forthcoming with information than they were a year ago.GSA runs a Web site (www.y2k.fts.gsa.gov) that includes links to the Year 2000 Web sites of 43 companies, including Nortel. But some companies, notably FTS 2000 vendors AT&T and Sprint, are absent from the site.

John Pasqua, AT&T's vice president, said his company's attorneys also have been warning against sharing information. But he said he and Bob Bender, Sprint's director of Year 2000 programs, met last week with Koskinen to discuss "perhaps using GSA's Web site to share test results...more publicly."

"We are talking about it at this point," Pasqua said.

"My vote is to do that."He added that AT&T will unveil early this month its own Year 2000 Web page to provide compliance information to all of its customers. Nichols indicated that he would establish a link between GSA's Web site and the AT&T page when it is established.

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