Mad About MySpace

Defense's decision to block popular Web sites pits online buddies against bandwidth.

Caught in a media hailstorm after blocking access to MySpace, YouTube and other sites on Defense Department networks, Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, director of the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations and the Defense Information Systems Agency, says his reason is simple: to preserve bandwidth needed for mission-critical operations.

After an internal memo about Croom's May order to block 13 video-streaming and social networking sites was leaked to the Associated Press, the news organization distributed an article saying, "Soldiers serving overseas will lose some of their online links to friends and loved ones back home." Subsequent news stories and blog posts included accusations of censorship, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying, "I fail to see how blocking these particular sites is consistent with achieving network efficiency." Reaction reached such a crescendo that Croom's deputy, Rear Adm. Elizabeth Hight, scheduled a news briefing at the Pentagon to clarify the Defense Department's action.

Critics are ignoring several salient facts, Croom says. First, the order doesn't change anything for troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the sites have been blocked on U.S. Central Command networks for more than two years.

That doesn't mean troops there and elsewhere can't access sites that are firewalled on Defense networks. The department operates more than 400 Internet cafés worldwide, equipped with 5,500 computer terminals hooked up to networks outside the dot-mil domain. This gives troops access to sites such as MySpace, YouTube and others covered by the directive, including the video-streaming sites Metacafe, IFILM, StupidVideos and FileCabi; social networking sites BlackPlanet and hi5; music sites Pandora, MTV, 1.FM and Live365; and the photo-sharing site Photobucket.

Many bases in Afghanistan and Iraq even provide Internet service in barracks through nonmilitary networks. In-room Internet service is available at Camp Liberty, Camp Stryker and Camp Cropper in Iraq with 8,000 active subscribers, and 21,000 troops in Afghanistan have in-barracks hookups at bases in Bagram and Kandahar, DISA spokesman Mike Thiem says.

The order was not meant to keep troops from communicating with their loved ones, Croom says, but was driven by the need to conserve bandwidth for mission-critical operations on some extremely thin circuits. Such policies are normal for large and small enterprises outside government, says Dirk Morris, chief technology officer at Untangle, a San Mateo, Calif., firm that sells servers loaded with software designed to block access to sites such as MySpace.

UPS, for example, has firewalled these sites to ensure that its operations function at optimum efficiency, according to spokeswoman Donna Barrett. "Our network is not a toy," she says, adding that it is a critical backbone used to coordinate delivery of 15.6 million packages a day worldwide with a fleet of more than 94,000 vehicles and 284 aircraft.

At FedEx, spokeswoman Sally Davenport says her company "has invested in a global IT network in order to meet the information needs of our customers and our operations . . . those sites are subject to company policies that limit the personal use of the company's computer resources."

Like FedEx and UPS, Defense uses its network to coordinate a vast array of moving parts. In many locations, bandwidth is so limited that it can barely support operations, let alone video streams pumped out by MySpace and YouTube, Croom says. Some bases have only T-1 (1.54Mpbs) circuits for network access. A T-1 provides one-quarter the bandwidth of the 6Mpbs available to the average broadband Internet service customer. As few as five simultaneous YouTube users could suck up all that bandwidth, says Untangle's Morris.

Another fear that prompted Crooms' directive is that content from these sites could be infected with viruses or malware that could then penetrate Defense networks. Last year, MySpace was invaded by a worm, Morris says, which, according to news reports, infected more than 1 million computers nationwide.

DISA and the Joint Task Force soon will be faced with video-streaming technologies that gobble bandwidth at 10 times the rate of YouTube, says Fred Sammartino, vice president of marketing for Ellacoya Networks of Merrimack, N.H., which developed software to monitor every packet of data transmitted over a network and identify the type of application and user.

YouTube videos are streamed at a rate of 100Kpbs (about twice the speed of an old-fashioned dial-up modem) in a small screen format, but a new technology called JOOST (pronounced "juiced"), developed by the New York-based company of the same name, transmits full-screen videos at 1Mpbs. Just two JOOST connections would gobble up all the bandwidth of DISA's T-1 circuits. Also, JOOST videos run continuously, like television, while YouTube clips run only about two minutes, Sammartino adds.

The Defense Department is "playing a losing game of digital whack-a-mole by blocking Web bandwidth-hogging Web sites, as in a matter of months new ones will pop up," Sammartino says. Users always will find ways to such sites, he says. Sammartino and Morris say DISA instead should develop a rights management system that allows users to access social or streaming sites at certain times and limits bandwidth allocated to such uses.

But Croom believes firewalling is the way to go, despite the media reaction, and he sees no need for a proactive public affairs campaign. "It's not our policy," he says, "to publicly announce how we plan to defend the network."

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