Digital Information Access for Members of the U.S. Military: An Abbreviated Timeline of Institutional Filtering
On September 30, 2015 the American Association of School Librarians will host the organization’s fifth annual Banned Websites Awareness Day; if all goes to plan, librarians, teachers, and students alike will gather across the country to discuss the impact that Internet filtering can have on learning in the classroom and in the library. It’s no secret that some schools have struggled with their blocking policies. When 400 high school students in Indiana received iPads, the first thing they did was reprogram the devices, so that they could access social media and game apps. Today, the Internet is glutted with websites explaining “How to Unblock Blocked Sites in School” and tips on how to access filtered websites. [This one explains how to copy and paste the URL of a blocked page into Google Translate.]
Institutional filtering is not a new concept. Schools, workplaces, and governments sometimes limit access to certain sites on internal networks for a number of reasons. Some filter in the name of technical concerns. Others, security and bandwidth. Then, there are those who filter because they believe that the Internet deters people from getting any work done.
Much of the existing research around Internet filtering focuses on governments that block their citizens from seeing certain websites. This post focuses instead on a different type of filtering, that which is institutional. It looks specifically at some of what the U.S. military has chosen to block on its own networks.
The accompanying timeline examines how the U.S. military has treated various websites - ranging from Twitter to Infowars.com - on its own base computers. It’s by no means exhaustive but instead aims to make note of a few instances of filtering on U.S. military computers over the past eight years and how specific stakeholders responded.
Date: May 2007
Event: The Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations issues a directive to ban the aforementioned 12 websites on DoD computers in February, which takes effect in May 2007. "It is a bandwidth issue," says Army Lt. Col. Randi Steffy, a spokeswoman for U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb.
Other Details: Service members are still allowed to access the 12 sites on non-military computers but cannot use the U.S. government's bandwidth to do it. One Army infantry officer who is headed back to Iraq stresses, "It's a practical matter, not a civil rights matter." General B. B. Bell pens "Restricted Access to Internet Entertainment Sites Across DoD Networks" in The Morning Calm Weekly, a U.S. Army Command Information newspaper primarily targeted towards the U.S. Military community serving, working, and living at U.S. Army Installations in the Republic of Korea. He warns, "You should also be mindful of the risk of identity theft that these sites pose and protect yourself and your family."
Date: May 18, 2009
Event: The Army’s 93rd Signal Brigade releases a memorandum to all domestic Directors of Information Management, allowing access to Facebook, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter, and Vimeo.
Response: Later, in November 2009, General Craig McKinley, 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, posts "Why I Tweet" on Facebook. He explains, "Tweets of 140 characters quickly and concisely put out a core message. Issues such as the importance of flu vaccines or National Preparedness Month can be highlighted to a broad audience. I also retweet stories from other senior Defense leaders and organizations to help them spread their core messages." In a later paragraph, he notes, "The technology folks also worry about security of the network from attack — also a valid concern. But my response is: 'Figure it out.' "
Date: June 2010
Event: Wired details a May 18 (2010) operations order, initially "for official use only,” from the Army’s 93rd Signal Brigade to all domestic Directors of Information Management. The order states, "[...] the social media sites available from the Army homepage will be made accessible from all campus area networks. Additionally, all web-based email will be made accessible.” Wired reporter Noah Shachtman adds that the order doesn't apply to all GI bases overseas and that MySpace, YouTube, and Pandora remain banned.
Date: September 7, 2010
Event: The U.S. government dissolves the "Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations" (JTF-GNO) and merges it with the United States Cyber Command.
Date: August 9, 2010
Event: William A. Davidson, Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force, pens a memo titled “Air Force WikiLeaks Website Guidance.” He explains, “Air Force personnel should not access the WikiLeaks website to view or download the publicized classified information. Doing so would introduce potentially classified infonnation on unclassified networks. There has been rumor that the information is no longer classified since it resides in the public domain. This is NOT true.”
Date: November 28, 2010
Event: Bryan Whitman of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense confirms to The Washington Times that the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard have instructed their staff to not visit the Wikileaks website.
Date: January 2013
Event: John Aravosis of AMERICAblog publishes a few blog posts, alleging that the Pentagon actively censors LGBT content on its computers; he uses screenshots to authenticate his argument. Mother Jones picks up his story and asks "Why Is the Pentagon Blocking LGBT and Progressive Websites?"
Response: On its Facebook page, the U.S. Department of Defense notes, "The Department of Defense does not block LGBT websites. The pages referenced in several recent articles were denied access based on web filters blocking the ‘Blog/Personal Pages’ category, not the specific sites themselves. While individuals on a DoD system may visit portions of the main websites (i.e., www.towleroad.com, www.AMERICAblog.com), certain additional links/pages - to include personal blogs - are blocked. Personal pages and blogs are blocked in accordance with DoD policy allowing military commanders the option to restrict access to personal pages for operational security reasons."
Date: April 2013
Event: An Army Air force officer tries to log into the Southern Baptist Conventions' website and cannot access it.
Response: “The Department of Defense is not intentionally blocking access to this site," responds Lt. Col. Damien Pickart. Later, Lt. Col. Damien Pickart explains, “We determined that our web filters recently detected malware at the SBC website, which resulted in the block for some service members. The department has verified that the Southern Baptist Convention website no longer contains malware that may pose a threat to our networks and will be unblocked today.”
Date: June 28, 2013
Event: The Pentagon and the US Army informs the Guardian staff that automated content filters installed on Department of Defense (DoD) networks to prevent the unauthorized dissemination of classified information only block access to selected aspects of the Guardian’s website. The Guardian reports that for troops in Afghanistan, the Middle East and South Asia, the restriction appears to apply to the entire website. Spencer Ackerman, a Guardian journalist, notes that the page that loads when troops in Afghanistan use the Department of Defense's non-classified internet protocol network (NIPRNET) reads as follows: “This is a theater-wide block. There are many reasons why this site might be blocked. It may be blocked for your protection, the protection of DoD assets or blocked based on Usfor-A [US forces command-Afghanistan] information systems security policy enclosure 18, Centcom regulation 25-206, joint ethics regulation (JER) 5500.7 or DAA directives."
Response: Gordon Van Vleet, a U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command Public Affairs Officer, clarifies, "In response to your question about access to the guardian.co.uk website, the army is filtering some access to press coverage and online content about the NSA leaks. The Department of Defense routinely takes preventative 'network hygiene' measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information onto DoD unclassified networks." He adds, "The department does not determine what sites its personnel can choose to visit while on a DoD system, but instead relies on automated filters that restrict access based on content concerns or malware threats. The DoD is also not going to block websites from the American public in general, and to do so would violate our highest-held principle of upholding and defending the constitution and respecting civil liberties and privacy."
Response: A Defense Department spokesman at the Pentagon emphasizes, "The Guardian website is NOT being blocked by DoD. The Department of Defense routinely takes preventative measures to mitigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information onto DoD unclassified networks."
Date: June 18, 2014
Event: An active-duty U.S. Navy serviceperson is unable to access the website and forwards a screenshot of the “Access Denied by NETWARCOM Policy” error message to the managers of infowars.com; the screenshot indicates that the block had been approved by the “Naval Network Warfare Command Battle Watch Captain.” Infowars is a website run by Alex Jones, an American radio show host, documentary filmmaker, and writer; he has previously accused the US government of being involved in the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks.
Response: On June 18, Infowars publishes a blog post criticizing BlueCoat, a corporate web filtering service used on some U.S. military computers, for its alleged “purge of libertarian, conservative media.” The article indicates that Infowars.com has been categorized as a “Violence/Hate/Racism” site, placing it alongside the Ku Klux Klan’s homepage. BlueCoat later recategorizes the site as “News/Media."
Response: The next day, on June 19, InfoWars.com’s Paul Joseph Watson writes a piece titled “U.S. MILITARY BLOCKS INFOWARS.COM: Website Censored for over 700,000 Active Duty Servicemembers Worldwide.” Watson cites an email received from another active duty member of the U.S. Military: “Hello, I visit infowars every day @ home and at work to keep up to date with latest news that I cannot find in the mainstream media. I am active duty military and my fellow comrades and I follow infowars and which usually ends up in discussion. Just recently my comrades and I have noticed the Infowars website has now been blocked on all our computers. I believe it’s another attempt for the govt to censor out the truth. I feel this story should be shared and at least infowars should be notified. As for my comrades and I we feel like its another attempt to take our freedoms which we fight for. Thank you for everything you do. Let the truth be told and never quit. If there is anything we can do please let us know.”