Google, Microsoft, Meta* and Amazon, with the support of two government organizations from the US and France, launched a public initiative to eliminate leap seconds, which are introduced to synchronize clocks with the Earth’s rotation, which is slowing down due to melting glaciers and other factors.
Since 1972, 27 seconds have been added to the reference International Atomic Time (TAI) – usually, instead of changing position from 23:59:59 to 00:00:00, another second passes at midnight, denoted as 23:59:60. And this causes malfunctions of computers that synchronize their clocks with servers of specialized services to run scheduled tasks. Technology company engineers say such adjustments do more harm than good, and since the Earth’s rotation has changed so little in all this time, leap seconds can be eliminated altogether.
Meta Fellow* Ahmad Byagowi believes that if we abandon leap seconds and rely on TAI readings, the urgent need for time correction will not arise for at least 2000 years – perhaps only then it will be possible to reset the clock. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (USA) and the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (France) have already joined the initiative of technology companies – the support of the latter is urgently needed, because scientists and governments, not private enterprises, are involved in the translation of clocks.
Leap seconds can indeed cause serious malfunctions in computer systems: due to the clock shift in 2012, the Reddit website was inaccessible by 30-40 minutes, Mozilla, LinkedIn and Yelp faced similar problems. In 2017, with the next transfer of time, some of the resources belonging to Cloudflare clients went offline: the software platform of the service compared the clock readings from two different sources, came to the conclusion that time had reversed, and could not correctly process this result. Now some technology companies, including Meta* and Google, decided to deal with the problem in a workaround: the leap second is “blurred” over a longer period – in the case of Meta* it’s 17 hours.
Leap seconds are not the only problem in computer systems caused by human folly. The first major failures were predicted around the year 2000, as some systems had only two digits for the year. Those same two numbers threatened to create problems with the release of the hundredth version of the Chrome and Firefox browsers this year. Another difficulty may arise in 2038, when the resource of 32-bit time, counted from January 1, 1970, runs out.
* It is included in the list of public associations and religious organizations in respect of which the court has made a final decision to liquidate or ban activities on the grounds provided for by Federal Law No. 114-FZ of July 25, 2002 “On countering extremist activity”.
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