Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lifting "don't ask don't tell" will require looking at Internet speech issues

There have been several columns recently from liberal-to-moderate observers advising President Obama on how to play the “Giuoco Piano” on lifting “don’t ask don’t tell.”

One of the most obvious quiet steps that the president can take right now is to commission the Rand Corporation to upgrade its 1993 study (often discussed before here, and mentioned by me on Wikipedia’s page on “don’t ask don’t tell”). And, by the way, the chess opening that I mentioned is anything but quiet in practice (however quaint – OK, there is “giuoco pianissimo, too”), and I don’t expect the issue to get settled that easily either. I hope it doesn’t get down to another king-and-pawn ending with zugzwang. Obama will need to keep “the Opposition”.

The obvious wrinkle in revising Rand’s proposed “Code of Military Professional Conduct” is going to be the Internet, posing complications, with social networking sites, blogs and search engines not imaginable in 1993. Everyone then (most of all, Barney Frank) wanted a “compromise” where you can “tell” people “privately” when off duty, off base – and yet, in the military, you’re supposed to be on duty at all times and all places. That includes what you put up on Myspace from your home computer.

One “obvious” rule could be that any statement of sexual orientation online must be made with privacy settings turned on (that’s even possible with Blogger). Of course, that would be “unfair” and “unequal” and raise objections in principle. Then, one goes down the path of saying that when military members blog or do social networking on their own, they must always accept some level of supervision. That could undermine the combat journalism that has become such a valuable record, especially from Iraq. But many commands require that all communications by personnel, especially when deployed to combat areas, be cleared anyway.

This is an area that any new policy (whether drawn up by Rand or any other party) would have to review carefully. It could even set an important example for many areas of the civilian workplace, where “online reputation” is becoming such a nettlesome issue for those whose jobs make them publicly visible.

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