A recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) that it would ban military personnel, including those serving overseas, from accessing social networking sites such as YouTube and MySpace mirrors what many U.S. businesses have done for years -- protect their networks from Web sites they deem security risks, productivity busters and bandwidth hogs.
Gen. B.B. Bell, the U.S. Forces Korea commander, said in a memo sent Friday that the recreational use of social networking sites "impacts official DoD network and bandwidth ability, while posing a significant operational security challenge."
According to the American Management Association (AMA), 65% of U.S. businesses use software to block connections to inappropriate Web sites, a practice called URL filtering.
That usage is largely a result of security concerns. The chief reason businesses block access to Web sites is to prevent the spread of spyware and other forms of malware, said Lawrence Orans, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. He said about 20% of commercial organizations block social networking sites.
Certainly, censorship of personal communications is nothing new for the armed services, justified by concerns over mission safety and national security. However, what makes this latest enforcement policy significant (and prickly) is that it denies access to a popular channel of communications that military personnel rely on to exchange messages, pictures, video and audio with family and friends.
Members of the military can still access the sites on their own computers and networks, but according to reports, most soldiers and sailors in Iraq and Afghanistan don't have access to personal computers.
The sites covered by the ban are the video-sharing sites YouTube, Metacafe, IFilm, StupidVideos, and FileCabi; the social networking sites MySpace, BlackPlanet and hi5; music sites Pandora, MTV, 1.fm and Live365; and the photo-sharing site Photobucket.
Members of the business world are neither surprised nor moved by the ban.
"I think it is prudent at this point for the DoD to act in a manner that is consistent with what businesses have been doing," said Ron O'Brien, senior security analyst at security vendor Sophos PLC in Burlington, Mass. "At home, a lot of these applications are acceptable and the manner in which you use them is at your discretion. But when you bring it into a work environment there are a number of impacts. The most significant is the security risk."
Earlier this month, the U.S. Army cracked down on personal blogs because of security concerns. According to reports, the new directive requires U.S. soldiers to get approval from a commander before posting a personal blog.
Some observers say the new rules to block social networking sites focus on seemingly innocuous information and argue that these sites are an important way for soldiers to keep in touch with families and friends. Taking them away is unfair.
Businesses often hear complaints from employees who find themselves blocked from sites they once frequently used at work.
"These are the typical growing pains when you try to put in place a policy [about Web site usage] where customers are used to having free access," said Paul Myer, president and COO of 8e6 Technologies, an Internet filtering, monitoring and reporting firm based in Orange, Calif.
"They've been accustomed to those resources with unfettered access and now that they're putting restrictions on it, they'll get push back from the rank and file and flak from the press," Myer said.
But the reality, said experts, and what the DoD has learned, is that popular or not, these sites pose significant issues to the network. And the organization, whether it be a business or the U.S. armed forces, has an obligation to prevent access if it significantly impacts the integrity of its networks.
"They'll have less access," O'Brien said. "But there will still be opportunities to exchange email. Social networking sites are not necessarily exclusive vehicles for sharing well-being with families."
The system grows up around you. Then you have to make a decision to shut it down, rather than make a decision to allow it. There will be people who will contact their Congressman over this.
Tony Davis, manager of network systems, Potomac Hospital
This is not as restrictive as it appears on the surface. "A generation of computer users has been accustomed to having these applications accessible to them 24/7," he said. "It will require adjustments, but I don't think it impedes them from communicating with friends and family."
As a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army and now the manager of network systems at Woodbridge, Va.-based Potomac Hospital, where social networking sites are blocked, Tony Davis can see both sides of the issue -- protecting the network versus accommodating the soldier.
Although he said he believes that from a "technical perspective the DoD did the right thing," he knows, too, that eliminating the outlet in which many soldiers were able to stay connected with their families will not be without controversy.
"You don't make a decision like that lightly," he said about the DoD allowing access to the social networking sites in the first place. "The system grows up around you. Then you have to make a decision to shut it down, rather than make a decision to allow it. There will be people who will contact their Congressman over this."
Bottom line: "There is no business purpose for those sites. It doesn't meet the military's goals and objectives," Davis said. "I wouldn't want my people connecting to [those sites] -- that's why we block it here."
Bruce Munroe, director of information systems for the city of Glenwood Springs, Colo., said the network has to be protected, first and foremost.
"From this vantage point, arguments related to free speech or individual privacy are irrelevant or subordinated at the very least."
By addressing business or institutional needs first, network managers retain the tools required to build secure networks, Munroe said via email. "The converse approach, one that fosters debate on civil liberties in the arena of private enterprise or institutions like the DoD, allows dogma to cross a forbidden boundary in my view."
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