After an uproar from conservative bloggers and free-speech activists, the Transportation Security Administration late Tuesday rescinded a new policy that would have prevented employees from accessing websites with "controversial opinions" on TSA computers at work.
The ban on "controversial opinion" sites, issued late last week, was included as part of a more general TSA Internet-usage policy blocking employee access to gambling and chat sites, as well as sites that dealt with extreme violence or criminal activity.
But the policy itself became controversial as the Drudge Report and a number of conservative bloggers highlighted the possibility that the policy could be used to censor websites critical of the agency or of the Obama administration in general. The American Civil Liberties Union also questioned the language.
TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches said the agency's revised "acceptable use" policy for Internet access on the agency's network was designed to block sites "that promote destructive behavior to one's self or others."
"After further review, TSA determined the 'controversial opinion' category may contain some sites that do not violate TSA's policy and therefore has concluded that the category is no longer being considered for implementation," she said in an e-mail to The Washington Times.
Before abandoning the guideline, agency officials said the policy changes were intended to address "evolving cyberthreats," but did not explain exactly what was meant by "controversial opinions" and whether Internet sites with conservative or other politically oriented viewpoints would be targeted under the new guidelines.
The changes were first reported over the weekend by CBS News, which obtained an internal memo sent to agency staffers. The memo was the lead item on the widely read Drudge Report site.
The agency's Office of Information Technology informed TSA staffers of the change Friday via e-mail. The notice listed five categories of sites that were "inappropriate for government access" chat/messaging; criminal activity; gaming; extreme violence; and those that feature controversial opinions.
The inclusion of the "controversial opinion" category immediately raised eyebrows.
"There's always a danger that threats are used to justify over-broad restrictions on speech and other freedoms," said Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert, before the TSA announced it was dropping the idea. "But it's disturbing to see the TSA get the balance all wrong on that."
A number of conservative bloggers suggested the TSA policy change was an attempt by the Obama administration to target opposing viewpoints or criticism.
"We have known for years that the government has talked about the possibility of censoring the Internet to thwart opinion, but this is the biggest it has ever gotten," said a posting Tuesday on the "Conservative for Change" blog site. "When will we be able to get back to when people actually had the freedom to make sound decisions for themselves and not have some government tell them how it should be?"
The TSA episode was not the first time the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, has gotten into hot water with conservative critics.
Conservatives objected strongly to an April 2009 directive by the department that warned law enforcement officials about a possible increase in "rightwing extremist activity." The details of the warning were first reported in The Washington Times.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano later apologized to veterans for the report, which stated the increased risks were posed in part by a few disgruntled veterans who could swell the ranks of racist militia groups.
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