The Pentagon is jumping into the online world it once placed restrictions upon with a newly released policy for using social networking and other Web 2.0 sites.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on Friday, Feb. 26, released a policy "for responsible and effective use of Internet-based capabilities." It essentially lifts bans on access to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, image and video hosting sites like YouTube and Flickr, and blogs. Prior to this policy, the Marine Corps in August 2009, flat-out banned social media sites from its networks, fearing that such access could lead to national security breaches.
"It was very hit-and-miss across the board as to who could get access and who couldn't and why," said Jack Holt, DOD senior strategist for emerging media. "More and more, we were finding ourselves restricted from going anywhere [online]. Interaction outside the DOD had to happen, and more and more we were shutting ourselves from that."
The policy doesn't give service members free rein on the Internet, however. Sites with prohibited content -- pornography, gambling and hate-crime related activities -- will remain inaccessible, according to a DOD press release. The policy also allows commanders to "safeguard missions" by "temporarily limiting access to the Internet to preserve operations security or to address bandwidth restraints," the release said.
The DOD's new policy appears to complement the Obama administration's Open Government Directive -- steps federal agencies should take to carry out President Obama's attempt at increased transparency. Also, more state agencies are recognizing and embracing the advantages of online social networking. The California Office of the State Chief Information Officer issued a social media policy the same day as the DOD. Utah, North Carolina and Delaware already have such policies in place.
The policy will help the DOD press office put out stories those in the mainstream media oftentimes overlook or dismiss as "non-stories," Holt said. Examples include the building of schools and hospitals in war-torn Iraq, which is exciting news for some people. "It's important to understand all of the effects that were happening in Iraq," Holt said. "We found there were a lot of people interested in what we were doing but couldn't find out because the media wasn't there."
Prior to the DOD policy, service members had to apply for a waiver to access some social media sites, Holt said, "primarily because it wasn't part of our mission set." Basically someone decided access to such sites wasn't work related, he said.
While the DOD has the resources to make bandwidth and security a priority, troops still must be trained to maneuver on the "online battlefield" and protect their identities and other personal information, Holt said.
"If we just shut ourselves off, it amounts to sticking our head in the sand," Holt said. "This kind of brings down the walls so we can see what's going on out there."
A recent example of the DOD's commitment to transparency can be seen on the department's Facebook page. With more than 21,000 fans, the DOD's top post on Monday, March 1, was a link to a blogger's roundtable discussion about the new social media policy.
Holt said the old way of thinking - that the DOD's online presence was a fortress to be defended - is slowly shifting to becoming "a field to be maneuvered."
Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.
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