You just never know where and when trouble will come. The widely hyped Y2K problem never materialized, but now we have the kind of computer chaos that Y2K was expected to create -- including a huge drop in the stock market.
The breakdown, however, is not being caused by a "millennium bug," but by cyber-terrorists purposefully attacking and shutting down, however temporarily, some of the nation's most popular e-commerce Web sites, including Yahoo, eBay, Amazon.com and even the online brokerage firm, E-Trade.
The companies lost tens of millions in sales and ad revenues; consumers were frustrated and angry, one trader saying he would never trade online again because his stock dropped six points while he was trying to sell it.
At least, so far, there's no indication that the privacy of customers -- credit card numbers or other sensitive data -- doing business with the companies has been violated. The attacks (overloading the computers with useless data), in effect, "locked customers out of the store."
The losses, and in some cases panic, that ensued drive home the point that Internet technology is no longer simply a user-friendly convenience. For a large segment of the economy -- a segment that's expanding each day -- it's a necessity.
This is why hacking -- or, more accurately, cyber-terrorism -- is not just a prank anymore. It's a serious crime.
Congress needs to re-examine criminal laws governing hacking and strengthen law-enforcement agencies with jurisdiction over computer crimes. It will be no easy matter for the FBI to trace the hackers, who may not even be in this country.
Hence, the best defense against cyber-terrorism will be the development of software and tools to protect Web sites and identify would-be hackers. But these same protections will, by necessity, rob the Internet of some of its marvelous flexibility and convenience -- and add to the cost of doing e-business.
Sadly, too, the technology to trace these cyber-thugs could also be used to erode what privacy still remains on the Web.