Inflight Turbulence for the Net

The business of providing Internet services on airplanes is just taking off. Care to send e-mail, receive instant messages, or surf the web while in flight? The emerging technology will soon make doing so as easy as placing a phone call from a plane-seat or logging on in a hotel room.

But like meals on most flights, the service won't be free. And like almost everything having to do with aviation, it must pass an antiterror filter.

The FBI, along with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, wants to be able to read or block online communications to and from airplanes. They have applied to the Federal Communications Commission for this authority and would use it only after obtaining a court order for each case.

They also want the airlines to be able to tell them electronically the seat numbers and itinerary of inflight Internet users as well as store records of all communications for 24 hours.

Given the security concerns - that hijackers could communicate and coordinate actions at 30,000 feet, or an explosive device smuggled on a plane might be triggered remotely - the law enforcement request seems prudent and reasonable.

But why make the request of the FCC? Congress is considering renewal of the Patriot Act. Certainly compromising Internet privacy rights inflight, and the potential for the same technology to find a landing pad on overall Internet use on the ground, should be debated and decided by legislators accountable to the citizens rather than by administrators appointed by the President. Public confidence in the security of airplanes is likely to trump private electronic communications every time. It would be best if the decision of privacy rights were part of a democratic process rather than a bureaucratic ruling.

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