July 1, 2007  

Web tangle

DoD needs to clearly explain Internet-access rules

The military and the milbloggers have settled into a predictable, if not altogether comfortable pattern: A new regulation is issued to provide greater official control over milblogs, which is then either circulated online or reported in the mainstream media, leading to a subsequent outcry against censorship, and concluding in a general recognition that the new rules have not really changed anything. This pattern was repeated in May when the Defense Department issued a new set of prohibitions on “recreational” Web site access on DoD computers, which was quickly reported in all the major press outlets.

While the major coverage this regulation received reflected how much it could have mattered, the eventually tepid response of the blogosphere reflected a growing realization of how little it did. In its own words, the regulation observed “a significant increase in the DoD network … by individuals visiting certain recreational Internet sites,” where they tied up bandwidth to “share various types of individual information with friends and family members (personal videos, photos, and data files).”

Citing both the loss of bandwidth and the operational security risk of exposure to malware and viruses on such sites, the regulation provides a list of Internet sites that would be forthwith blocked: “youtube.com, 1.fm, pandora.com, photobucket.com, myspace.com, live365.com, hi5.com, metacafe.com, mtv.com, ifilm.com, blackplanet.com, stupidvideos.com, and filecabi.com.”

These Web sites play a surprisingly large role in the lives of young soldiers in modern warfare. Although blogs have been the focus of most media attention during the war on terror, the number of MySpace pages maintained by service members far outnumbers the number of milblogs. They are easier to open and maintain, and do not require as much journalistic writing.

MySpace-type networks allow many younger soldiers to maintain contact with large groups of friends from high school or in the military. Individuals who may not be comfortable maintaining a blog are able to announce to all their families and friends that they are alive and well with a single sarcastic comment or by posting the latest stupid video they found online. In at least one instance, an Army wife has created a MySpace page to maintain contact with her husband and provide a location where their families can check in to see how things are going.

A more somber testament to the role that these networking Web sites play in the lives of American troops can be found in their mentions in many hometown newspaper remembrances of fallen troops. Many of these now include direct quotes from MySpace pages, providing a rare glimpses into the lives and thoughts of soldiers in combat.

Following her husband’s death in Iraq in May of this year, one grieving woman used her husband’s MySpace page to post a tribute for her friends and family to share: “You always did what you loved to do, and that is serve your country. I appreciate your sacrifice as well as all others before you. Without people like you where would our country be?” A new technology used to express an ageless sentiment.

YouTube plays a less personal role in the immediate lives of troops but has provided an invaluable tool for filming life in Iraq and sharing it with their family and friends back home.

Simply stated, there is something to lose if military regulations concerning these sites are managed poorly. But what, if anything, was lost in this latest regulation?

While the immediate press reports were characterized by the Associated Press headline, “Troops to lose MySpace, YouTube access,” most milbloggers emphasized that the new policy was in response to a legitimate problem. Moreover, this is an instance where contractors on the battlefield (or at least inside the forward operating base) have saved the day, as access to the networking, photo and video sites is available at the many on-base cybercafés in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sean Dustman at Doc in the Box (http://docinthebox.blogspot.com) observes, “Out of my 3 tours, there was a maybe a month of time when we were able to get to these sites from work before it was cut off to our entire base. So we went to the internet café if we wanted to upload pictures and blog posts. … Know what happened for that month we could visit those websites [from work]? It slowed everything … to a crawl, pages wouldn’t load and there were people who wanted to get official work done and it took forever or the .mil sites would time out.”

“CPL M” at A Soldier’s Perspective (http://www.soldiersperspective.us) focuses criticism at the Associated Press, which first carried the story and in his view spun it up in a manner that did not reflect the facts. Stating that the AP report was “hiding the complete story under a few paragraphs of sensationalism,” he confirms that the troops have been using cybercafes instead of government computers, that the satellite-based Internet connections in Iraq take three to four times as long to load pages as in the United States (when they don’t simply time out), and that malware is a serious threat that is easy to hide in the electronic clutter of high bandwidth recreational Web sites.

But if the censorship nightmare has again failed to come to pass, there remain significant questions that the latest Internet kerfuffle has left unaddressed. Are there a sufficient number of cybercafés at smaller FOBs, or are they restricted to the major posts? If a local paper can find a dead or captured soldier’s MySpace page, can the insurgents in Iraq be expected to do the same? All connections out of an FOB in Iraq, including cybercafés and personal computers, ultimately depend on military resources for connectivity — could this ban be arbitrarily expanded at a local commander’s ill-advised discretion?

The issuance of the latest regulation indicates that the military has a long way to go before it can answer these and other questions effectively, or more importantly, that it can anticipate them before they become Internet and media rumors about draconian censorship.

If this pattern of military-milblogger interaction holds any lesson, it seems to be for the Defense Department, which can only pre-empt the feedback loop by issuing rules and regulations on milblogging that are clear, allow for consistent implementation and are clearly explained to the milblogging community.


How to find the blogs mentioned in this article:


A Soldier’s Perspectivehttp://www.soldiersperspective.us

Blue Crab Boulevardhttp://bluecrabboulevard.com

Training for Eternityhttp://chaplain.blogspot.com

Tanker Brothershttp://mikegulf.blogspot.com

The Convergence of My Ideals and Realityhttp://samuraipunch.livejournal.com

Christopher Griffin is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.