Pentagon tightens controls on troops' Internet access

Pentagon cites new restrictions on blogging, website access as technological and security necessity.

The Pentagon has imposed a ban on US troops' access to popular networking and video sites, just weeks after a storm of criticism over new rules limiting soldiers' personal blogs

The Associated Press reports that the Pentagon is blocking access to more than a dozen websites, including YouTube and MySpace, over military computer networks. A Pentagon spokesman said that the move was intended to "enhance and increase network security and protect the use of the bandwidth."

The Pentagon said use of the video sites in particular was putting a strain on the network, and also opening it to potential viruses or penetration by so-called "phishing" attacks in which scam artists try to steal sensitive data by mimicking legitimate Web sites.
After the warnings of the shutdown went out, military members were allowed to seek waivers if the sites were necessary for their jobs. Often insurgent groups post videos, including ones of attacks or – in some high-profile cases – of U.S. or coalition soldiers who have been captured or killed.

The ban applies only to military networks – personnel may still access those websites from private networks, such as web cafés. Troops were notified of the change in policy in February, and it took effect last week.

The ban's has been met with sharp criticism. Personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan use the banned sites to communicate with friends and family, and some worry that the ban will hamper that communication and damage morale, writes The New York Times.

Becky Davis, whose son is serving in Iraq, helps write a blog for the group Military Families Voice of Victory. As part of the blog, Ms. Davis occasionally provides YouTube links to reports that she thinks soldiers will find interesting. She said she was unsure whether the links would be blocked.
"I am concerned about how this directive is going to impact the families," Ms. Davis said. ...
"These sites are like modern-day forms of writing letters, the same sorts of letters that soldiers in the trench holes in World War II wrote," said Corey Robinson, 22, who served a total of 20 months in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Army.
"When we were able to use the Internet, there was a huge difference in our morale," Mr. Robinson said.

Mike Thiem, a spokesman for the Defense Information Systems Agency, told the Times that the ban was necessary to prevent slowdowns of the Pentagon network. As many of the banned addresses were music- or photo-trading sites, which demand significant bandwidth. "There was careful thought given to which sites were chosen. This was not an arbitrary decision by any means," he said. He also denied that the ban was meant to prevent soldiers' communication with family. "No one is trying to prevent that from happening."

The BBC writes that the ban comes as the Pentagon sees the success of its own YouTube channel, Multi-National Force-Iraq, which ranks 16th on the site's most subscribed-to listing. The BBC notes that though the Pentagon has invited its troops to submit video for the channel, those same troops will not be able to view the channel unless using private computers.

The website ban comes on the heels of criticism over new Pentagon restrictions on the posting of soldiers' blogs. Wired reported two weeks ago that the U.S. Army has ordered troops "to stop posting to blogs or sending personal e-mail messages, without first clearing the content with a superior officer."

Military officials have been wrestling for years with how to handle troops who publish blogs. Officers have weighed the need for wartime discretion against the opportunities for the public to personally connect with some of the most effective advocates for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the troops themselves. The secret-keepers have generally won the argument, and the once-permissive atmosphere has slowly grown more tightly regulated. Soldier-bloggers have dropped offline as a result. ...

Wired noted that the military did say there was "some leeway" in implementation of the regulations.

Despite the absolutist language, the guidelines' author, Major Ray Ceralde, said there is some leeway in enforcement of the rules. "It is not practical to check all communication, especially private communication," he noted in an e-mail. "Some units may require that soldiers register their blog with the unit for identification purposes with occasional spot checks after an initial review. Other units may require a review before every posting."

Nonetheless, the new regulations stirred a wave of negative response from soldier bloggers, known as "milbloggers." The blog OPFOR called the decision "pure stupidity," arguing that blogs are one of the few ways to promote positive messages about the military's efforts. The popular blog BlackFive described it as "the end of soldier blogging from the war zones."

In response, the Pentagon released a subsequent fact sheet that backed down from the original regulations, Wired wrote in a follow-up article. The fact sheet says that military personnel do not need to seek approval from a supervisor when writing a blog entry or an e-mail.

Though the fact sheet assuaged some concerns, worries about the regulation remain. The BlackFive blog, while welcoming the revision, noted that it didn't change the regulations as written.

The Army is stepping back on this. This wasn't an overblown reaction to the reg. The reg was poorly written. The Wired article accurately reflected the changes in the regulation. And now, General Officers are on the move to prevent it from doing damage. The Army is doing the right thing here. This announcement is a welcome change...however, the "announcement" does not reside within the reg, and therefore, commanders, when consulting the regulations, won't know about it unless it's disseminated widely (like, say, at a milblog conference).

BlackFive argued that because the change was not included in the regulations, the chilling effect on milbloggers may remain, as commanders would continue to follow the stricter regulations.

The Guardian reports that the furor over milbloggers' freedom comes just as US soldier-blogger Colby Buzzell was awarded the Lulu Blooker prize for "My War: Killing Time in Iraq," which was voted the best book of the year based on a blog.

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