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GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — It is something many office workers take for granted — the ability to browse the Internet in search of information and entertainment during downtime on the job.

However, the war on terror and the battle to control government spending mean U.S. soldiers and civilians working in Europe have a lot less freedom to browse the Web at work than many others. A few minutes on any computer hooked up to the U.S. Army’s network in Europe is long enough to discover that a great swath of cyberspace is off-limits.

It might not come as a surprise to learn it’s nearly impossible to access Web sites from China — a country with notoriously restrictive Internet rules.

And while the Army apparently has no problem with its network being used to access the official North Korean government Web site, korea-dpr.com, forget about accessing Web sites from South Korean and Japan — both strong U.S. allies in Asia.

Soldiers in Europe can use their work computers to check out the French Communist Party’s Web site at — www.pcf.fr/accueil.php — but not such capitalist sites as ebay.com and verifiedbyvisa.com.

Soldiers who want to catch up on the news are welcome to check out Al Jazeera at english.aljazeera.net/HomePage — but they are blocked from reading the Sydney Morning Herald. In fact, the only Australian Web site Stars and Stripes could access was The Australian newspaper’s site — theaustralian.news.com.au — which is run by News Corp., the same company that runs the Fox television network in the U.S.

One topic that is mostly off-limits for all Army computer Web surfers is sex, although it is not clear exactly where the line has been drawn. For example — brittanyspears.com can be accessed but pamelaanderson.com is off-limits.

Shopping online for a date at match.com is fine. So is mindlessly whiling away work hours at hotornot.com. But attempting to wife-swap at adultfriendfinder.com, something that would break military law, is not.

According to Daniel La Chance, a senior policy writer for U.S. Army Europe’s chief information officer, workers on U.S. Army bases in Europe are allowed to use the Internet for personal Web-surfing with their supervisor’s permission as long as they comply with the joint ethics regulation.

There are many good reasons why certain Web sites are off-limits, he said.

“There are a thousand reasons why a particular Web site might be down at a given point in time,” La Chance said. “There are times when a particular IP (Internet protocol) address is discovered to be associated with different kinds of hacker activities. These blocks happen for a period of time. They turn these blocks on and off on a weekly basis. It is a dynamic kind of thing.”

According to USAREUR public affairs, “Networks are part of the Department of Defense’s greater Global Information Grid. Countries are not blocked by USAREUR. Some blocking may be done by other Department of Defense or national-level federal agencies due to national security concerns and can be changed at any time without notice.”

Some Web sites are blocked to ensure force protection or operational security, La Chance said.

“People are not allowed to go to Web sites where they might download a virus or get ‘phished,’” he said. Phishing involves hackers impersonating legitimate Web sites to get personal information from users.

“Enemies out there are trying to get information however they can from us and we don’t want them to get information that they can use to make some bad things happen. We have to protect our network and still have it available for people to do business. There is a balancing act required, but we are going to balance toward the OPSEC (operational security) and force protection side first,” La Chance said.

One of the software tools employed by the Army to block Web sites is called Websense.

U.S. Army Europe public affairs stated: “The specifics of how, when, and where it can be used and what it can screen is an OPSEC matter that cannot be discussed publicly.”

La Chance said: “We use it (Websense) to protect the network. It doesn’t specifically block, by name, anything. If a person has a legitimate professional reason to access Pamela Anderson’s Web site, they can make a request to the U.S. Army Europe G6 (Information Technology Division) and we will entertain the request,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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