What's Motivating the Military's Selective Web Site Ban?
Citing limited bandwidth and potential security issues, the Pentagon has cut off U.S. troops' access to several social networking and other high-volume Web sites. Soldiers can still post to MySpace and YouTube -- two of the banned sites --but only from outside networks.
However, most overseas military personnel, including thousands stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, have no Internet access other than the Defense Department networks, which they rely on to stay in touch with family and friends.
Other sites covered by the ban include Metacafe, IFilm, StupidVideos, FileCabi, BlackPlanet, Hi5, Pandora, MTV, 1.fm, live365 and Photobucket.
To be sure, bandwidth requirements pose a legitimate concern that is not limited to the U.S. military. Large corporations, for instance, have taken to locking employees out of popular streaming video sites at the workplace in order to ensure that their networks can run at full capacity.
Sharing videos, swapping photos and other popular Web 2.0 activities can easily eat up a lot of bandwidth, said Jeff Stibel, CEO of Web.com, which provides military families with tools to create multimedia sites.
"It can be a concern," he told TechNewsWorld.
Also, security risks should not be underestimated, warns Melissa Feagin, a former information systems technician who recently separated from the U.S. Navy.
"A military network is an entirely different entity than a civilian one," she told TechNewsWorld. "Every day, our networks are under attack from foreign invaders. Whoever thinks our enemies are out herding their camels are sadly mistaken. Our militant enemies have networks of very intelligent, trained operatives working night and day to hack into our networks."
Although the military warns sailors and soldiers to never reveal their schedules or locations, "there will inevitably always be that one who does tell his mom back in Wisconsin that 'the ship is pulling into Dubai next Tuesday,'" Feagin continued. "Especially after the USS Cole tragedy, mistakes like this can be deadly."
MySpace has a feature called "MySpace Chat," she noted. "Any chat space online allowing users real-time conversation is strictly forbidden on board United States Navy vessels, as that mistake that one person lets slip out may reveal the ship's exact real-time location."
By blocking access to such sites, the Pentagon is also protecting itself from a common virus vector, Dan Nadir, vice president of product strategy for ScanSafe, told TechNewsWorld. "Some users are not that sophisticated in knowing not to download certain files from a P2P (peer-to-peer) site, for example," he said. "This is a valid security risk -- not only in the military, but in the corporate world as well."
Moment to Moment
Still, the ban -- which the Pentagon imposed with little warning -- is undercutting a type of communications near and dear to deployed armed forces and their families. Soldiers have been using these sites to stay in touch and give their loved ones some sense of what is happening with them.
"Real-time communication is so important in these situations," Andi Hurley, founder of Spousebuzz.com, a Web site for military spouses, told TechNewsWorld. "It empowers military families -- and we are exploiting it for all that it is worth."
Hurley, whose husband was deployed in Afghanistan, told of a recent military spouses' convention she recently attended. "We talked about how difficult -- inconceivable, actually -- it must have been for spouses in World War II or Vietnam, waiting weeks and weeks for a letter. Being able to see your spouse and talk directly -- virtual or otherwise -- makes all the difference at the home front."
In response to the military's dictum, sites such as Web.com and WebsitesForHeroes.com are likely to become more trafficked as overseas personnel seek to stay in touch. These sites use various means to minimize bandwidth usage.
In the case of Web.com, it avoids social networking and linkages that can slow systems.
WebsitesforHeroes.com employs a compression technology that "shrinks" photos as they're uploaded to a standard size, thus reducing the strain on the system. These sites typically come with password-protected technology to satisfy the Pentagon's security concerns.
That is assuming, of course, that the military wants its personnel to be using these sites at all -- regardless of whether they are safe or easy on the network.
One dark suspicion that's making the rounds in the blogosphere is that the Pentagon wishes to shut down any communication by the troops that may reflect unfavorably on what is happening in Iraq.
The move to ban the social networking and photo-sharing sites follows a far more onerous ban on personal communications implemented earlier this year.
Reportedly, the army has recently ordered soldiers to stop writing blogs or sending personal e-mail messages, unless the content has been cleared by a superior officer. These new regs, which can be punishable by court martial or criminal action if violated, also apply to spouses and friends, although jurisdiction is unclear on that point.
For some military personnel, the restrictions have been hard to swallow.
The new regulation "does not distinguish between on-duty, off-duty, deployed, non-deployed, military computers, personal computers, etc.," writes one solider.
"In effect, it dictates to me, my family and my friends that they cannot send e-mail or publish their own blogs, regardless of content. So, technically, every time my wife wants to send an e-mail, she needs to get permission from my commander or OPSEC (operations security) officer beforehand. While the intent is geared towards the release of OPSEC-related material, the reality is that the regulation effectively targets EVERY form of electronic communication utilized by Soldiers AND their family members."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, demanding information on how the Army monitors soldiers' blogs. Even before the new regulations went into effect, there were accounts of an Army unit called the "Army Web Risk Assessment Cell" (AWRAC) that reportedly reviewed hundreds of thousands of Web sites every month, notifying webmasters and bloggers of information it found inappropriate.
"Soldiers should be free to blog their thoughts at this critical point in the national debate on the war in Iraq," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann.
"If the Army is coloring or curtailing soldiers' published opinions, Americans need to know about that interference."
In light of the military's most recent action, Americans certainly won't learn about it at MySpace or other familiar Internet haunts.