So far the Army has uploaded 25 good-news clips showing American soldiers firing at snipers off camera, handing Iraqi children soccer balls, and rescuing Iraqis injured by the carbomb of the day.
In an attempt to rebuild the eroding image of America at home and abroad, the U.S. Army is commissioning videos portraying the positive side of the Iraq War to counter what military spokesperson Lt. Col. Christopher Garver called an endless stream of bad Garver told the BBC that the Army’s new wave short subjects are part of the military’s effort to take the Iraq offensive into cyberspace, where the enemy has already staked out strategic positions and forced the U.S. to play catch up. With over a million hits on YouTube, the army’s public relations effort seems to be reaching audiences.
But it won’t reach military audiences, because on May 11 the Army blocked YouTube from all military computers, along with other sites like MySpace and Photobucket. According to Gen. B. B. Bell, these “recreational” sites take up too much bandwidth on the Defense Department’s unclassified NIPRNET. The general was silent about the Army’s own foray into QuickTime videography, but the military’s underlying concern seems not to be with heavy traffic, but with limiting the materials that soldiers can read on these sites, or upload to them.
Bell goes on to alert soldiers to the dangers that the Internet poses to soldiers and their families (identity theft, not to mention jpegs that make the notorious Abu Ghraib photos seem like family snapshots), and he warns them to watch what they’re doing when they use the web from their personal home computers as well: “Regardless of which Internet sites you may visit from any computer, DoD or otherwise, you must always be alert to protecting sensitive, unclassified information.” In other words, “Don’t make us look bad.”
The Pentagon doesn’t consider what it’s doing censorship, but compounding this policy of “Don’t tell, don’t tell,” the Army announced new rules requiring military bloggers to get prior approval from commanding officers before posting anything to the Web. Anything at all.
While the Army insisted that it wasn’t targeting milblogs, the widely-read military blogs that don’t always present the official version of the war, bloggers themselves aren’t so sure, since the regs specifically cover blogs and just about everything else that can be put on line: “letters, resumes, articles for publication, electronic mail (e-mail), Web site postings, web log (blog) postings, discussion in Internet information forums, discussion in Internet message boards or other forms of dissemination or documentation.”
Blogging is popular because it opens up the author’s club to anybody with a computer, a wi-fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks. Readers in turn are free to read, respond, attack, or in most case, just ignore a blogger’s posts. Blogging bypasses conventional editorial scrutiny, though, and that bothers the Pentagon, which wants military bloggers to stay on message, its message.
In attempting to harness the free-range blogging of the Web, the Pentagon joins the governments of China, Iran, Myanmar, and Cuba, among others, in putting firewalls between writers and readers.
It’s not surprising too to see the brakes being put on YouTube. Once the venue for countercultural protest, experimental film, and exhibitionism, YouTube is fast becoming a tool of the establishment as well, which seems only right now that Google owns it and Viacom is suing it. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns MySpace, where capitalists were also muscling out the grass roots innovators well before it occurred to the U.S. General Staff to do the same.
Technologies like radio and television started out unregulated but were quickly put under the yoke once they became both popular and profitable. The Internet seems harder to corral, but not impossible: Google and Yahoo have already bowed to pressure from China to limit access to proscribed websites in exchange for permission to operate in that country; American service providers regularly comply with court orders to turn over the search records of their patrons; and bills in Congress aim to control what can be viewed on school and library computers. In addition, computer communications, whether email, IM, blog, or vlog have inexorably moved from radically free-wheeling to conventional and regulated as well.
Military censorship is neither new nor surprising. What’s surprising is that the Pentagon took so long to figure out that loose lips sink ships, whether those lips are virtual or analog. Or maybe, given the government’s apparent lack of technological sophistication, it’s not so surprising. After all, Google and Microsoft seem able to figure out where we’re all heading while Military Intelligence doesn’t seem to have a clue what the enemy’s up to.