Friday, September 15, 2006

Military would probably look at social networking sites, especially with ROTC students


We've heard a lot of media reports in the past six months about employers checking the social networking site profiles, personal weblogs, and search engine tracks of job applicants. I think it is pretty obvious that the military can do this with soldiers. College students on ROTC scholarships or graduate students on military pay (to go to law school or especially medical school) would be at particular risk.

I haven't heard a lot of specific reports about this yet. But back in the mid 1990s even there were visible discharges for soldiers and sailors for "outing themselves" in AOL profiles (which at the time were the rage, much like facebook and myspace today). One famous case around 1996 was a sailor Timothy McVeigh (a different person than the individual associated with OKC), who actually had an anonynous profile in which he outed himself, but was disclosed by a civilian. A judge actually enjoined his discharge.

Today, a military-sponsored student or cadet who outs himself or herself on a profile and is on a scholarship might, in some situations, face a tuition recoupment suit.

All of this begs the question about what the original policy should have been. The Clinton administration, with its Feb 1994 Pentagon memo, had tried to portray the DADT policy as relatively benign, that it would not "pursue". We all know that such a "promise" would be repeatedly broken over the years with various witchhunts. But also think back to that time, which was just before it was becoming more common for people to use the Internet to promote themselves.

At the time, I even imagined a "don't publicize" policy as being reasonable. A person in the Armed Services could reasonably be expected not to publicize a gay sexual orientation because that could create a disturbance within a otherwise cohesive military unit. Such was the Powell/Nunn/Moskos theory that many have questioned.

Since then, the technology for online self-publishing, personal domains, weblogs and social networking sites (let alone chat) has exploded. People feel that if they are online at all, they want to be candid about who they are. Anything else would show a lack of integrity.

Maybe we should bite the bullet and simply say that people with sensitive jobs should not identify themselves online at all, at least on their own. I have explored that idea elsewhere. Nevertheless, we all know that blogging by military members from combat areas, especially Iraq, is common, and has added valuable journalism to the public.

This is a bit of a conundrum. But so is the larger debate over the way the public and employers are perceiving personal weblogs and social networking site profiles. It is reasonable, perhaps, to expect teens and young adults to show some restraint as they are starting their careers and making themselves credible. One notion that I hear from older people is that younger people should not be heard from in public (and should not make themselves known as individuals in public) until they have some responsibility for others. Who owns one's right of publicity? His employer? His family? Himself? Herself?

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