Filtering on Planes, or Why I Will Only Take Amtrak

American Airlines is testing in-flight wi-fi Internet access, and flight attendants want something to be done to prevent passengers from looking at naughty things in flight. (“something” = filter the content). This brings back some funny travel memories from my days in consulting, such as seeing someone on a flight to Toronto openly reading Playboy, and a women’s rugby team passing a pornographic magazine back and forth around the cabin. The point: porn on planes isn’t new, and yet the Republic remains strong. Filtering is a dumb idea here, for three reasons.

First, filtering the Net deals with porn on-line but not off-line, and the two pose the same problem when you’re seated with two nanometers of space between you, your seatmate(s), and the cabin crew. If exposure to sex and nudity is the problem, ban that – not the method of delivery. The Bloomberg article (linked above) raises attendants’ concerns about “laptop images of violence.” Like the TV show Lost? Or Terminator 2? South Park? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? I’ve seen all of those on other passengers’ DVD players on planes in the past year. Internet access may raise the visibility of these issues – what content is OK in a shared public space like a plane? – but the right answer addresses content rather than channel.

Second, what’s inappropriate? Can I surf racy lingerie sites? Tasteful nude photographs? Heck, how about just watching Olympic women’s beach volleyball? (In London in 2012: division into string bikini and thong brackets.) We are rightly cautious about allowing the most easily offended citizens to define normative standards in public spaces, and we’ve already had this fight on the Net (remember Reno v. ACLU?). I don’t want American Airlines making these calls for me (especially given the drek in its in-flight magazine). Note, too, that if AA wants to make this work, they’re going to have to ban a lot of stuff – including Google Images and proxy / anonymizer services – that provide easy access to sexually explicit material.

Third, I think there’s a better and easier answer. If John Doe is surfing pron in seat 12C, all it takes is one announcement over the PA system: “Will Mr. John Doe in seat 12C please lower the volume on his pornographic movie?” Social norms are great regulators in contexts where feedback – peer pressure, shame – is immediate and likely vocal. (Just think of how passengers react to announcements of flight delays, and then imagine they’ve got the captain or air traffic controller sitting in the next aisle.)

Hopefully this will come to nothing. But we are seeing the spread of demands for filtering the naughty bits from the Internet – from free wi-fi to airports to YouTube to cloud computing. The battle over whether filtering is possible is over, and I think the battle over whether it will / should occur is as well. The next questions are when, and where. Until then, I’m taking Amtrak, where there are outlets for laptops and the conductors don’t mind my choice of entertainment. (LOLCat sites.)

Props to Bill for pointing me to this one!

3 Responses to “Filtering on Planes, or Why I Will Only Take Amtrak”

  1. I agree with you that filtering on airplanes is a dumb idea. But your idea for public shaming isn’t a good fix either. As any librarian can tell you, many of the people (usually men) who chose to view explicit material in a public place do so in part because they enjoy forcing others (usually women) to see it. The regularity with which patrons visit the reference desk to complain of computer problems, only to lead a librarian over a computer that is clearly having no problems displaying some porn site, suggests to me that female flight attendants are right to be concerned. Filtering is probably not the answer, but you can bet that social norms won’t do the trick.

  2. Hi Molly – this is a great point. I hadn’t considered this. Frankly, that’s a really creepy prospect. My hope might be that there is enough diversity on the average airline flight that there would be widespread disapprobation of someone looking at dirty stuff – it would remove the onus from the librarian / person seated next to the offender to carry the weight of policing social norms.

    Exhibitionism strikes me as a tough problem. Is it likely to be worse, in the airline context, than use of tangible porn? Is there any likelihood that the higher cost of entry to get on a plane, rather than into a library, might deter some of the creeps?

  3. I think you’re right, it’s probably less of an issue on planes, and the question of digital vs. print is an interesting one. I wonder – do airlines have policies in place allowing flight attendants to confiscate offensive print materials from passengers? Only if someone complains? How might that translate to the question of internet porn on planes?

    I would be very uncomfortable with airlines developing policies that allow them to confiscate people’s laptops for looking at offensive material, because who gets to define offensive? There was that girl who almost got kicked off a plane not too long ago for being dressed “inappropriately” (I’m too lazy to go find the link), not to mention the inordinate amount of power that the TSA already wields over innocent travellers. The line between personal freedom (for laptop porn viewers) and personal comfort/safety (for everyone else) is going to be a tricky one to walk on this issue. I can see how the apparent quick-fix of filtering would be appealing.