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Army lifts Web 2.0 blockade, for some

Jul. 20, 2009 - 02:48PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 20, 2009 - 02:48PM  |  
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Try to look at the Army's new Facebook page. Or check out the Navy's YouTube Channel or follow the Air Force's steady stream of Twitter tweets. If you're on a government computer, chances are good you can't.

Even as the services try to dial themselves in to the latest stations on the ever-emerging info spectrum, leaders and troops alike often find themselves firewalled out by what many call outdated rules and old thinking.

"The technology is working faster than the bureaucracy can keep up," says Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, one of the Army's top social media evangelists. "Social media is moving at warp speed; we're trying just to keep abreast, but it's tough."

The Army, for example, recently lifted its scattershot blockade of some social networking outlets and Web-based e-mail on bases throughout the U.S., but many still find themselves under embargo.

Lifting the blockade

In a recent operations order from a 93rd Signal Brigade commander, U.S.-based network managers were directed to allow soldiers to use Facebook, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter and Vimeo, as well as online e-mail providers such as Yahoo! Mail and Gmail. Even government-owned Blackberries are to be given access.

The reason: To "support the intent of senior Army leaders to leverage social media as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story' and to facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information," according to the oporder, which was first leaked to Wired magazine's Danger Room blog.

Indeed, some commands had already dropped their social media firewalls while others had restrictions as thick as a castle rampart.

"There was really no good reason why sites like Facebook were blocked at some posts and not at other posts; there was no rhyme or reason to it, so this was an effort to standardize things across the board," says Stephen Bullock, a spokesman for 7th Signal Command, which was created a few months ago to oversee U.S.-based communications for the Army.

But the switch doesn't apply to everyone, not even everyone in the U.S.

Shifting tides

Seventh Signal Command represents only those units that fall under Installation Management Command. That's less than half of the Army networks on U.S. soil.

Other units will follow over the next few years, but for now that leaves major players — Army Material and Medical commands and overseas headquarters among them — to make their own call about access to social media sites.

Still, the move signals a shifting tide.

"This is the initial thrust forward in terms of doing the right thing. I would hope other units will get on board," says Arata, director of the Army's Online and Social Media Division at the Pentagon. In fact, senior leaders are already debating an Armywide policy. "We're talking about it at this level. The folks here are aware of the need to do it."

Indeed, Arata's very job is a sign of those shifting waters. It didn't exist seven months ago.

Uneven standards

As Web 2.0 speeds by, the Air Force and Navy are mulling things over, as well.

"We are looking at the policy," says Navy Capt. Herman Phillips, assistant chief of information for communication, integration and strategy.

"A lot of organizations have Facebook access already, but for others, especially afloat units, it's tougher for them to get on," Philips says. "We also have some very real threats to our networks. But we have to balance that against the very real need to communicate in this new medium."

The Air Force is perhaps the most closed off of the services.

"Most social media sites are blocked on almost all Air Force bases," says Paul Bove, an Air Force digital media strategist who helps keep online outreach flying from D.C. To do that, he —- like many in Air Force public affairs — has had to open a civilian Internet account just to manage the service's official social media outposts on Facebook, YouTube and others.

"It's one of the biggest questions we get all the time," says Bove. "How are we supposed to engage on these social media sites if we can't even get on? It's frustrating because it closes down communications and defeats the purpose of using these tools in the first place."

Old new rules

A two-year-old policy, still wet with ink by Pentagon standards but already ancient in Web time, is largely to blame for keeping troops at work from using many of the military's favorite new ways to communicate.

Issued by the U.S. Strategic Command, keepers of the military's worldwide grid, the 2007 order provides a laundry list of prohibited "Recreational Traffic" sites banned from the government's network.

Some of the sites listed are no-brainers — sexually explicit filecabi.net stands out; MTV and Stupidvideos, too — but the order also shut down traffic to YouTube and MySpace, among others.

That's why the Army's new oporder allows streaming video newcomer Vimeo, but must ban YouTube, Bullock says. Similarly, the order shuts out MySpace while clearing Facebook.

Because Vimeo and Facebook had not fully appeared on the national radar screen when the 2007 instructions were written, the Army can follow the letter of the law while maneuvering around its "recreation" blocking intent.

Too bad for now that the Army — as well as all the other services — uses YouTube heavily for training and troop outreach but is largely absent on Vimeo.

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