No more cats playing piano for soldiers overseas. According to an Army memo sent out Friday, soldiers in the field worldwide will no longer have access to the following sites: YouTube, MySpace, Pandora, Photobucket, MTV, Live365, iFilm, StupidVideos, Metacafe, FileCabi, BlackPlanet, Hi5 and 1.fm.
Critics charge that the latest move will cut off many overseas soldiers from a direct link to their loved ones back home and is an attempt to squelch bad news about the unpopular Iraq war.
But an Army spokesperson told MTV News that the Internet crackdown was necessary to combat growing concerns over the security of the unclassified Department of Defense Internet network, called NIPRNet. And as in many offices around the country and the world, he said the Army was simply trying to reduce the drag on its servers and cut down on "recreational" surfing that could introduce malicious viruses or worms into a system critical for sending urgent queries to the battlefront and back to the U.S.
"People can write letters, call home — there are other ways to communicate," said the Army spokesperson, who requested anonymity. "This is primarily a bandwidth issue and nothing else."
The change will not affect home computers, but with many soldiers in the field relying exclusively on NIPRNet to send news, photos, IMs, video and audio to the outside world (the Army has long barred service members from sharing information that could harm missions), families of some soldiers have labeled the move a form of censorship.
"We're looking at this now, and there's a lot of talk among families about the implications," said Nancy Lessin, co-founder of the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out, whose stepson served in the Marines in Iraq in 2003. "The larger picture we see is that the war is going very badly, and some of the ways to understand what's going on is by hearing from those over there."
Lessin compared the new Army directive to the one from President Bush at the start of the Iraq war forbidding photographers from taking pictures of flag-draped coffins coming back from Iraq. "[At that time] Bush wanted to block that image of the war, and we look at this [latest decision] as part of the larger picture of what the administration has done to keep the American people away from the reality of the war," she said. "It will have a tremendous impact on the soldiers and their families."
Lisa Cantu's brother, Ronn Cantu, is one of the most vocal anti-war critics in Iraq among active-duty troops there, mostly through his eight-month-old blog SoldierVoices.net. "But one thing he's said is that the Internet service there is really slow, and soldiers getting on and downloading stuff from YouTube or whatever slows it down for everybody," she said.
But with soldiers now cut off from MySpace, which many consider a key lifeline to their families at home, Lisa, a member of Military Families Speak Out, says her brother thinks the military must provide some other access to computers. "They set up an Internet cafe over there," she said. "But there are literally tens of thousands of soldiers, and it's not enough."
The restrictions come on top of new regulations about blogging from the Army that require soldiers to consult with supervisors before posting. According to The Associated Press, the Army said the blogging rules were not meant to have soldiers clear every public posting with commanders, but only to protect critical information. The critical difference between the new regulation and a previous one from 2005, however, is that the old one specified that soldiers had to consult supervisors before publishing anything "that might contain sensitive and/or critical information," while the new, some say more vague regulation says they must consult with their supervisor "prior to publishing or posting information in a public forum."
Serving his second tour in Iraq, Ronn Cantu has not yet run into any complaints from his superiors about the blog, which is officially registered with the Army, according to his sister. She says he's been very careful about not divulging operational information or any other sensitive material. "He's been left alone because he's not giving away information, just honest answers about what's going on," Lisa said.
But some predict that the rule will seriously impact military bloggers. John Noonan, an Air Force captain blogger, told AP, "Officers will just say you can't blog because that is the safest way to do it. It will have a chilling effect." An Army major general who worked on creating the new rules clarified that they do not affect personal, private e-mails soldiers send to their families.