Microsoft passes the $200bn mark

Microsoft joined the elite "market cap" club as the company passed the $200bn market value level during trading on Wall Street last Tuesday, although by the end of trading it had fallen to just below. General Electric, with a value of $251.2bn, is the only other company on Wall Street in the exclusive club.

Microsoft's stock has risen 27 per cent over the year compared with 4.6 per cent for General Electric. The personal worth of Bill Gates is estimated at more than $40bn. Intel, whose stock has increased in value by 31.5 per cent for the year, is also moving towards the market cap with a value of about $151bn.

Lawsuits and year 2000

Legal analysts are predicting that "millennium bug" problems, where hardware and software cannot recognise the year 2000, will precipitate an avalanche of lawsuits against software companies. Last month a New York hardware company filed a $50m class-action suit against SBT Accounting Systems, and last week a suit was filed against Symantec on behalf of customers of Norton AntiVirus software.

Both suits were filed by Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, a law firm specialising in stock fraud suits. With new laws making it harder to win fraud cases, some analysts say the time is ripe for a deluge of similar suits. "No question about it. Milberg Weiss has just started gearing up," says Steven Hock, a litigator specialising in millennium bug issues at Thelen, Marrin, Johnson and Bridges.

Vito Peraino, a lawyer who has testified on the subject to Congress, says few firms are prepared for the issue. He says many companies that buy and sell software are likely to find themselves as both plaintiff and defendant in suits, and few lawyers are knowledgeable about the issues involved. "The legal learning curve is still very low and very slow," he says.

Data encryption

standard cracked

RSA Data Security says a team has broken its 56-bit Data Encryption Standard II code, as part of an ongoing contest aimed at persuading the US government that 56-bit encryption is ineffective and that it should allow stronger forms of encryption to be marketed overseas.

The US Commerce Department requires that any encryption software built for export, and stronger than 56 bits, has a key-recovery system that allows third parties, such as government agencies, to access the encrypted files or communications. It took the team, using a network of thousands of computers linked across the Internet, 40 days to break the most secure version 56-bit code. The team tried 63 quadrillion keys - 85 per cent of the possible permutations - to discover the hidden message: "Many hands make light work."

"This makes a statement that the key lengths allowed for export are relatively weak," says Matt Robshaw, RSA principal research scientist. He says the 128-bit code, also part of the contest, had not been broken yet.

United States Web

proposals under fire

The European Commission has criticised a US proposal for reforming the Internet's naming and address system, saying it would give Americans too much control. "The US proposals would ... seem to consolidate permanent US jurisdiction over the Internet as a whole, including dispute resolution and trademarks," it said, in a draft reply. But the EC said it agreed with the general thrust of a Clinton administration proposal to shield Internet communications and trade from customs duties.

Washington's proposal is aimed at opening the registration monopoly to competition. Currently, Network Solutions' InterNIC agency, under contract to the US government, controls addresses ending in .net, .com and .org. Under the plans, top-level domain names would be run by private companies, under the control of an independent group. The EC would rather base the Web registration system on the work of the International Ad-Hoc Committee, to which it contributes. The IAHC aims to set up an independent registrar in Geneva that would control seven new domain names, including .store, .web and .firm.