Once again, technology has outrun the laws we use to regulate it. Consider the Pentagon's current automated surveillance of troops' blogs. Is it necessary? Legal? Constitutional?
The background: A military organization called the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell (AWRAC) reviews hundreds of thousands of Web sites monthly, searching for "sensitive information" that might constitute a breach of military security.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed suit, demanding details of the unit's operations.
In particular, the organization wants to know whether the military is censoring the opinions of troops, which would be a violation of the constitutional right to free speech.
The military says the surveillance is clearly legitimate: Some information is and should be secret, and putting it on a blog, or any Web site, makes it available to the entire world. But this is only half of the question. The other half is the question of a military person's freedom of speech.
For example, can a soldier in a war zone criticize his or her commander or question the war? Can a soldier in the United States assert that a hugely expensive weapon doesn't work?
Before the Internet, the same question existed, but it was easy to sidestep or ignore.
A soldier didn't have very effective means of expressing opinions. In principle, the troops could write to editors, but in practice, they seldom did.
Now, using the blogging sites on the Web, such as Blogger.com, anyone can have a site up and running in 15 minutes. In the past, troops had freedom of speech but no way of exercising it.
Now, theseblogs allow for theuncensored discussion of anything. They allow like-minded people to gather online.
What now? Anyone who has been in the military, or covered it as a reporter knows that commanders are extremely sensitive to criticism. They will go to considerable length to suppress it. Often, for example, an officer will be assigned to monitor all contact between a reporter and enlisted men.
There will be a powerful temptation to use automated surveillance to silence criticism of policy. AWRAC has no power to take down a Web site. However, it can intimidate by notifying commanders of its content.
It is, of course, entirely legitimate for anyone in the Pentagon to read any site on the Web. But, here we come to a legally awkward aspect of electronic technology: Things that are harmless or desirable if done occasionally become something very different if done, automatically, hundreds of thousands of times.
For example, a policeman can, and should, check the license number of a car that he deems suspicious. But if we put automated cameras on every street to check all cars, 24 hours a day, it would become Big Brotherish.
Constant surveillance has a chilling effect that an occasional glance does not, especially when it is undetectable. The same situation exists with blogs. With software "spiders," it is easy to scan sites to look for particular words or phrases.
More than the military is involved. Should the government be able to monitor civilian sites, probably in search of terrorists, and compile dossiers on those critical of policy? Why not? The argument in justification would be that there is no expectation of privacy for Web sites. If it is legal to look at one Web site slowly, why should it be illegal to looks at millions of sites quickly? The effect would be to make people avoid certain subjects, phrases and points of view. Not good.