i-6078b588e535b29eebf97689431620b9-The Pentagon.jpg
Imagine you’re working at a small startup company and there are no regulations in place as to what you can do on company computers. You update your personal blog, and watch clips on YouTube during work breaks. But over time, the company grows bigger, and eventually tighter regulations come: no personal blogging on company time or blogging about sensitive company information; and no wasting time and company bandwidth with sites such as YouTube.

That scenario sounds straightforward enough, but overlay that onto the military, and you have military bloggers (a.k.a. milbloggers) and the media in an uproar about the chilling effects on free speech and censorship of military personnel. Recently, the U.S. Army updated its operational security (OPSEC) regulations (PDF file) to require commanders check each soldier’s blog post for sensitive or security-related material before posting. And the Department of Defense (DoD) decided to block a variety of websites such as MySpace and YouTube on DoD computers to save on bandwidth and keep those computers more secure.

Wired’s excellent Danger Room blog, edited by Noah Shachtman, has been covering these new regulations almost daily, but Shachtman and Wired have been sensationalizing the story as well. His initial story on the blog regulations was titled, “Army Squeezes Soldier Blogs, Maybe to Death,” including the gloomy line: “And it could mean the end of military blogs, observers say.”

i-9011d0b108ad17a55a93408665857693-Noah Shachtman.jpg
Noah Shachtman

It’s true that the military is restricting access to some popular sites for military personnel, and that commanders are getting increased power over subordinates’ blogs, but military blogs are not going to end, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. No one knows how much commanders will really scrutinize blogs of subordinates, or how they could check every single blog post. And even if the military came out and said it was banning blogs by military personnel — which it hasn’t — soldiers are the kind of resourceful folks who would figure out ways around those restrictions in a heartbeat. And what about all the former military folks who blog, the military relatives who blog and just the fans of the military that blog? They are all considered milbloggers and their craft will go on unfettered.

Commanders Might Not Enforce Rules

The blogger who goes by the handle Army Lawyer laid out his own take on the new blogging regulation and how commanders might react to them:

Commanders are as varied as snowflakes. Will some lean too far forward and say ‘no blogs’? Yes. but they could have done that before. While a commander may technically say ‘no MySpace,’ ‘no eBay’ and ‘no…forum posting,’ they are not obligated to do so under the regulation and, truth be told, commanders that ARE so lacking in common sense probably have other concerns within their units.

While reading an entire reg is generally a good thing, here it’s not really necessary as so little of the reg applies specifically to online postings. Remember, this is not the Army’s ‘Blogger Regulation.’ It’s the OPSEC reg. This update simply attempts to incorporate into an earlier scheme new technology like blogs and other online public forums.

What’s particularly difficult for military personnel is that they had this amazing freedom to photograph, videotape and blog from war zones — with little restriction from a Pentagon more focused on wartime tactics than online media sites. Over time, that changed and the military realized that freestyle blogging and intensive multimedia use from war zones were not optimal for getting work done.

Pentagon spokesman Major Patrick Ryder told me that one overlooked point in the site-blocking brouhaha was that those sites (YouTube, MySpace, et al) had been blocked in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since last year. Ryder admits the DoD made a PR mistake in releasing the new rules without enough background, but he was adamant that they are not trying to censor anyone or restrict communication to family and friends from the field of combat.

“We’re constantly looking at the network to make sure it’s available for its primary purpose,” Ryder said. “As you start to see more bandwidth-intensive features on the Internet, and you combine that with the potential security issues and vulnerabilities that we all face…it starts to put a serious strain on the amount of bandwidth we need…The concern in a lot of the articles was, ‘Would folks overseas have the ability to keep in touch with family members?’ Well you’ve got telephones, you’ve got email, you’ve got videoconferencing in some locations.”

JP Borda runs the Milblogging.com site and was shipping out to Iraq when I contacted him last week. He said that the new blog regulation would have no effect on him, as he already has registered his blog with his superior, who also blogs. Borda expects that a full dozen soldiers in his platoon will be blogging from the front lines in Iraq. As for the site blocks, Borda thinks that’s no different than what anyone might encounter at a typical workplace.

“Big companies like Microsoft and Dell don’t allow their employees to tell trade secrets, and their guidelines are probably pages and pages long,” Borda said via email. “Why should the military be any different? I’m rank-and-file, and I’m not upset at all, because it hasn’t changed the way I blog one bit. It makes me laugh that the President of the United States states on record that he supports military blogs, but so many other people (other than rank-and-file) get upset about the OPSEC guidelines. Sure, some military folks might be upset, but that’s because a lot of outsiders are stoking the fire, even though this policy is really nothing new.”

Sword of Damocles Hangs Over Bloggers

The military spokespeople have all been saying the same thing in unison — these regulations aren’t new. That doesn’t pass muster, however, because the new blogging requirement means that a commander has more power over the content of blogs and online postings before they are even posted. And shutting access to MySpace and YouTube on all DoD computers means that those outlets will be cut off for troops who rely on them to tell their own stories. Yes, they can access those sites on personal computers or at cybercafes, but those aren’t always readily available in the field.

Chris Mariner is the pseudonym for a high-ranking U.S. naval officer who is based in Japan, and blogs at The Yankee Sailor. Mariner told me the new blog regulation was a blunt hammer of a rule with little subtlety.

“I think a good number of current and potential bloggers will decide the costs of running afoul of the rules will outweigh the benefits,” Mariner told me via email. “That new regulation is a big hammer that relieves commanders of any responsibility to really evaluate the content of posts. Now all they need is a general feeling that they don’t like a post and they can flog someone for not getting it reviewed first, regardless of the content.”

Still, Mariner believes that the regulations and site blocks will only be a minor inconvenience for military folks in the long run. “When all is said and done, though, I think we milbloggers will do just fine despite the changes,” he said. “After all, unless DoD comes out and says, ‘Thou Shalt Not Blog,’ we’re much more nimble than any office code in the Pentagon.”

Noah Shachtman, who edits the Danger Room blog for Wired, can’t understand why the military entrusts life-or-death decisions with 19-year-olds but doesn’t trust them to write appropriate content on their blogs. “You’re giving that kid a gun in a very hostile and strange situation in Iraq,” he said. “So to me, I am a little bit baffled that giving someone a gun is considered OK but a blog isn’t? That seems like an odd dichotomy to me.”

Shachtman defended his reporting for the original blog regulation story, despite the sensationalistic headline and lines about milblogging possibly coming to an end. He is most worried about the chilling effect of the new regulation. “They can still blog, but now that this rule is on the books, it’s like a Sword of Damocles just hanging over your head for a blogger. I think that’s going to be very chilling.”

i-8bbb738e1c3bab82a4460a36e4be1bba-Steve Field 2007.jpg
Steve Field

Steve Field is a former public affairs specialist for the Pentagon who blogs at The D-Ring (and whom I interviewed last November for MediaShift). Field is less concerned about the blog regulation than he is about blocking sites such as MySpace and YouTube, which he considers fertile ground for public affairs when soldiers use them to tell their personal stories.

“The primary harm is that soldiers can no longer organically help public affairs do their mission by telling their stories, by uploading their videos to YouTube or writing a MySpace blog,” Field said. “When I was on the [DoD] conference call [with bloggers], the admiral said that this list [of blocked sites] was completely amendable. So any site could be added to this list if that site was taking up too much bandwidth. So this policy is a new whack-a-mole for the Department of Defense. So any site that becomes popular could be blocked, so when does it stop?”

Pentagon to Host Blogs?

So what happens next? The new blog regulation is not the most popular new rule among soldiers who blog, and blocked sites will require work-arounds. The larger issue for the Pentagon continues to be how such a top-down organization can come to grips with the bottom-up nature of citizen media, whether it’s blogs, combat videos or photos from battle.

“Over time, as people who are field grade officers now become colonels and generals, they will become used to [new media] and won’t be as threatened by it,” Field said. “That again goes to the big issue that I’ve been struggling with: How do you balance an organization that’s bent on command and control with a medium that inherently has none? It’s the million dollar question.”

Field has proposed one possible solution to that conundrum: The Pentagon could host a blogging platform for any soldier who wants to blog. The only requirement is that those bloggers would have to take an online tutorial to learn what is kosher to blog about and what isn’t. Field admits that many long-time milbloggers wouldn’t want to move their blogs to a military-run site, but this could be one way that the military could aggregate the best stories from milbloggers in one place.

While the military has shown an interest in hosting milblogs, Shachtman told me they are considering hosting those blogs in password-protected sites open only to other military personnel. That seems like it would defeat the public affairs purpose of letting the soldiers tell their stories to the public.

While Major Patrick Ryder in public affairs at the Pentagon admits the DoD made a mistake with the handling of the site-blocking announcement — engendering so much bad press — he and the Pentagon seem to be opening up more to bloggers and responding much more quickly to press inquiries.

“There’s a small group of folks at the Office of the Secretary of Defense that has done a shockingly good job of reaching out to bloggers,” Shachtman said. “In fact, they are reaching out to bloggers more than they are to reporters, which I’m not sure if I agree with. If you’re a blogger on their list, your access to high level generals and admirals working in Iraq today is amazing. They set up press conferences with bloggers every couple days. I’m on the blogger list, and I talked to Rear Admiral Elizabeth Hight [head of IT for the military] about the YouTube ban before the press conference with the mainstream media.”

Shachtman says there are two camps in the military when it comes to new media: those that want to embrace it, and those who fear it. The question is, will those that fear new media lose power over time and let go of their fears? One past incident on the micro-level might inform how a compromise over new media might play out over time on the macro-level.

“At my last command bandwidth was a big issue,” Chris Mariner told me. “For a while there was talk of completely eliminating web-browsing privileges for the most junior sailors. After a dialogue between the leadership and the deckplates, the command set up a bunch of computers around the ship where the junior personnel could browse whatever they liked, but browsing by those same junior sailors at most computers was limited to .mil, .gov and .edu sites. In the end, most everyone was satisfied by the solution.”

What do you think? How much harm will come from the new blogging and site-blocking regulations in the military? Will there be a chilling effect or will bloggers continue to tell their unvarnished stories? Will the military back off of these regulations over time? Share your thoughts in the comments below.