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Resources, Not Content, Drive Web-Use Decisions

By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2007 – A directive blocking access to 13 popular Web sites from the Defense Department network was designed to guarantee bandwidth availability for mission-critical functions, a defense official said yesterday.

Operational security concerns “played absolutely no part in the decision” by U.S. Strategic Command to limit access to several recreational sites, including MySpace and YouTube, Navy Rear Adm. Elizabeth Hight, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, told “bloggers” and online journalists.

STRATCOM does not conduct user monitoring, she said, because “we are protectors and defenders and operators of the network, and we do not get into the content of the information flowing over the network.”

Rather, what drove the decision to restrict access to certain sites was a desire to be proactive in mitigating the problem of new technology’s ever-increasing demand for bandwidth, Hight said. She pointed to streaming video as a particular drain on bandwidth resources.

Blocked sites include: YouTube; 1.fm; Pandora; MySpace; PhotoBucket; Live365; hi5; Metacafe; MTV; ifilm.com; Blackplanet; stupidvideos; and filecabi.

Hight said officials looked at the highest-volume Web sites that were using a large amount of bandwidth in deciding which sites to block. That process extends the possibility that other sites may be blocked in the future, she said.

Addressing bloggers’ concerns that the directive was being used to stifle the open flow of information from deployed troops, Hight pointed out that restrictions on certain Web sites have been in place in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Southwest Asia for more than two years -- four years in some cases -- because of tangible limitations to the technology infrastructure.

Using Iraq as an example, she explained, “anytime that you have a resource in a resource-constrained environment -- in this case high-speed connectivity in an area like the Anbar province that does not have an infrastructure to support that -- you’re relying primarily on commercial satellite services. And, those transmission pipes, so to speak, are in fact limited.”

Most deployed forces still have the opportunity to access the blocked sites using commercial Internet cafes and providers. Such Internet facilities are common features on U.S. military installations overseas to provide troops morale, welfare and recreation opportunities.

The tradeoff, Hight said, is a guarantee of official communications availability in support of missions and enhanced security to the overall Defense Department network.

“We are becoming more and more concerned about the potential for network security incidents,” she said. “And so if we can find the right balance between bandwidth and security in order to support our ongoing operations while providing alternative sites for recreational use, … that’s precisely what we’re trying to do.”

If operational requirements demand unfettered Web access, Hight said, waivers can be granted to specific offices. Exceptions have already been made for public affairs and recruiting offices, she said.

But at the same time, Hight noted, her agency is advocating common-sense usage across the military’s intranet. “One of the things we’re encouraging everyone to do is follow best practices to make sure that we only use the amount of bandwidth absolutely necessary to provide that information necessary for decision makers and others.”

Vernon Bettencourt, deputy chief information officer for the Army, pointed out that Army Knowledge Online, the Army’s interactive resource portal for soldiers, features file-sharing capabilities that cut down on the need for sending oversize slide shows across the Internet. That functionality should spread across the military when the portal transitions into Defense Knowledge Online.

The Army site also offers instant messaging, chat rooms, and discussion groups, Bettencourt added, and will soon feature blogging capability.

Hight stressed that these sites are not being blocked to prevent servicemembers from talking about their experiences in war zones. Individual soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are encouraged to share their views from the ground, she said.

“We applaud what they’re trying to do relative to getting their view out and letting people understand what they see and what they are doing,” she said. “So again, they’re not restricted. They simply cannot do it from their desk at work.”

(Tim Kilbride is assigned to the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)

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