Greater Greater Washington

Amtrak soft launches Wi-Fi, but with content filtering

Wi-Fi service, already available on Acela Express trains, is soft launching on Regional trains as well. Reader and Maryland Juice blogger David Moon encountered working Wi-Fi on his Regional trip from New York to DC.


Photo by iandavid on Flickr.

And an Amtrak contractor was checking with riders about the connection quality, which Moon found to be quite "stable." Have you found Wi-Fi on any Regionals?

There's one catch: the service, Amtrak Connect, is apparently also employing content filters that censor many completely legitimate subjects, including news sites that focus on gay issues.

Content filters, in general, have come under substantial criticism, especially when implemented by governmental or quasi-governmental entities like public libraries. It's nearly impossible to accurately filter out objectionable material without also blocking some controversial yet completely appropriate subjects.

Why is content filtering necessary at all on Amtrak? US law does not hold service providers responsible for the information people access via their networks. People are even bringing their own computers.

If Amtrak is worried about other people seeing certain content on computers, those computers could already have offensive content on them. Or, like many public entities that put content filtering on Wi-Fi, maybe there's just a generic knee-jerk assumption that they "ought to" filter without any real justification.

Some types of filtering, for bandwidth rather than content, can be appropriate. Amtrak has limited bandwidth to its train-mounted devices, which connect to the outside world using the same systems as Internet-enabled mobile phones. If one person tries to use HD video chat or some other very bandwidth-intensive use, it could deprive others of decent service, so Amtrak and its contractor who operates the service, GBS and Nomad Digital, would be acting reasonably to "shape" network traffic to limit higher-bandwidth uses to a portion of the data stream and maintain service for others.

Amtrak deserves kudos for rolling out Wi-Fi, but should instruct its contractor to only filter out material based on its bandwidth usage, not its subject matter.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Agree with that...filter based on bandwidth use, not based on website content.

by Froggie on Oct 19, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

This is strange that they're filtering based on content. With the Amtrak Connect in Union Station (they're free public wifi) doesn't have any limits, bandwidth, content or otherwise as far as I can tell.

by RRuszczyk on Oct 19, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

*their

by RRuszczyk on Oct 19, 2011 1:16 pm • linkreport

The last time I was on the Acela, the Consumer Electronics Association's Tech Enthusiast site got filtered out as porn. As I tweeted at the time, my writing there may qualify as tech porn... but, seriously, that's not the same thing!

- RP

by Rob Pegoraro on Oct 19, 2011 1:37 pm • linkreport

There are plenty of people using laptops on Amtrak trains now for offline use, plus Acela riders and people in major NE Corridor Stations using their non-content-restricted Wi-Fi. Has there *really* been an epidemic of people watching porn on the trains or in the stations? I have to believe it is a tiny minority. I know libraries deal with this on a more regular basis, but the "client base" of libraries often tend to be homeless/very poor/people with substance abuse issues, whereas Amtrak's client base is much more middle class. I'm not saying that poor people watch more porn than middle-class people, but I am saying that middle-class people have the ability to enjoy porn in their own homes and are thus less likely to be stupid enough to watch it in public.

Plus, of course, "offensive" is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. There are, rightfully so, laws against watching hard-core porn in public, but what about PG-13 sex scenes? Or neo-Nazi websites? Some people would find those offensive, but to try and restrict access to that content would seem to defy the First Amendment, especially for a quasi-public corporation like Amtrak.

by Marc on Oct 19, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

Remember, most companies that deploy content filters buy subscriptions that are pre-filtered. I don't think Amtrak has gone through and classified sites like Tech Enthusiast as porn. Being that it is a new deployment, it might just be possible that many of these classifications are wrong and have not yet been manually modified.

Whether it's a restaurant or Wi-Fi, I'd hardly expect a soft launch/pilot to be completely perfect. Let's give it some time before we start freaking out about government censorship and the like.

by Sam on Oct 19, 2011 1:50 pm • linkreport

Amtrak has had free WiFi on the Acela for over a year and I have not seen many complaints about the content filtering. I didn't into excessive filter blocks when I was using the Acela WiFi. It is possible that with the system in a soft roll-out, that the content filters have been set to a high level as a precaution until the official roll-out.

As to why have a content filter, well people are in public with their laptops and tablets. Amtrak does not need the headache of someone viewing questionable material when sitting next to a kid or someone who will complain to their Congresscritter or Fox news, screaming that Amtrak is a p*rn provider. How are the filter set in general for the airlines and intercity bus services? They face the same issues.

As for limiting bandwidth: a typical NE Regional can have 6 coach cars with 72 seats each, 1 business class car with 62 seats, and a café car. With 494 seats total plus possible spillover in the café car using one multi-channel router, yes, Amtrak has to restrict bandwidth for each user. If someone wants to download videos, movies, or engage in high bandwidth activities, then they can pay for it using their own cell phone or 3G/4G service.

The trains that are to get the free WiFi in October are not just the Northeast Regionals, but all the Amfleet I equipped trains: Carolinian, Empire Service, Ethan Allen, Keystone Service, New Haven to Springfield MA shuttles, and the Vermonter.

by AlanF on Oct 19, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

I wonder if the long-distance trains will get WiFi anytime soon? On the east coast, I can just use my phone for internet connectivity.

by Steve S. on Oct 19, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

I am pretty sure the bus companies like megabus with which Amtrak competes, have content filtering on their wifi. So that some customer doesnt complain their kid sees something in the next seat they shouldnt. Which I think Megabus and Boltbus consider more of a concern, than someone not riding because their software blocked an innocent site by mistake. Nor do those bus companies think that the fact that some passengers will look at offline porn a reason to not use the software.

If Amtrak is going to compete with private entities (though in theory Amtrak is itself a private entity) it needs the same freedom those entities have when it comes to marketing strategies.

by RidesMegabusAndAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

My original story on Amtrak WiFi censorship is at: http://www.marylandjuice.com/2011/10/montgomery-county-spends-67408-every.html

The subcontractor who I complained to about the net filtering said that they wanted a filter to control bandwidth for things like Netflix and Hulu. Fair enough.

But content filtering is another matter entirely, and it is unclear what would compel them to use one, let alone a filter that is crappy enough to exclude the Seattle Gay News and the UK's Guardian newspaper. They are all subject to human stupidity, leading to the question, who gets the right to decide what is offensive? Or what is porn? I would like to see Amtrak's definition, and how they are operationalizing that definition in their filter programming.

by David on Oct 19, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

Also, I ride Megabus much more frequently than Amtrak, and their WiFi is usually fairly unusable. I have to tether off my Android instead. But with a content filter installed, I would rather use my own connection anyway.

We are so scared of information.... and as much as I'd like to see Amtrak compete with the private sector: a) it takes public money so shouldn't discriminate on viewpoints, and b) who says content filters bring more business?

by David on Oct 19, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

I am writing this comment from am Amtrak train right now :) For the most part it works nicely, although the internet did drop out a few times between Baltimore and Washington (which is the only segment I've traveled so far). It is difficult for most users to define stability of these types of internet connections though since what you see is the WiFi connection, not the internet connection. The internet can drop completely and your WiFi connection will still be up, and if you didn't know better you would say it was "stable."

by William on Oct 19, 2011 2:22 pm • linkreport

Acela only has the bandwidth limit (still slow as God knows what), so I'm not sure what they're doing. Sad, because I enjoy Amtrak with Wi-Fi.

by Phil on Oct 19, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

"We are so scared of information...."

I dont think this is about information, but about little johny asking mommy why the man over there is looking at videos of naked people.

" and as much as I'd like to see Amtrak compete with the private sector: a) it takes public money so shouldn't discriminate on viewpoints,"

Im pretty sure that taking a grant does NOT bind a private organization to being treated in law like a govt agency.

"and b) who says content filters bring more business?"

I think thats up to the marketing people and managers at each company to determine.

by RidesMegaBusAndAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

"Or what is porn? I would like to see Amtrak's definition, and how they are operationalizing that definition in their filter programming."

I imagine it works like this "So I sees pornblok is used by several other big companies, and its cheaper than the other bids we got in" I dont imagine Amtrak management sits around having philosophical discussions about freedom of speech.

It always surprises me how some people think businesses are run like college seminars.

by RidesMegaBusandAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

@RidesMegaBusandAmtrak

Uh, we are talking about censoring newspapers not porn? And Amtrak is not a private business?

by David on Oct 19, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Can someone explain the legal difference between watching porn on a computer, or just bringing a Hustler on board of a train?

by Jasper on Oct 19, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

1. Amtrak IS technically a private business. Their board is self appointed,not govt appointed anymore. They are a private business that gets an appropriation, and are subject to some conditions in that appropriation. They are NOT a govt agency. IANAL but that is my understanding

2. The filter would NOT be new for Amtrak, thats my point. I presume they buy an off the shelf filter, as lots of companies do for their office computers. Id be surprised to hear that they have a custom filter made

3. IIUC filters have long lists of suspect sites - they arent necessarily able to tell a newspaper from porn. Whatever criteria they use, can easily err.

4. I would think a quality filter would, by 2011, manage to avoid most of the silly mistakes (blocking a gay newspaper cause it had articles about sex) but I do not know enough details here - I suspect its just Amtrak buying a cheap, low quality piece of software. I doubt very much its amtrak executives sitting around trying to censor gay political opinions, which is what I saw implied above

5. I am not sure what I did that was trollish, other than implying that some around here think businesses work like college seminars. If that is unacceptably personal, I apologize for violating the TOU.

by RidesMegaBusandAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

This is almost definitely part of the soft rollout of the system. Most companies contract out the filtering of what goes through there servers and there are always gliteches now and then. My company just recently had problems where all of our marketing people couldn't use Facebook and Twitter for a few days, which was a big problem.

I have used WiFi at Union Station and on the Acela before, and while I may not have been going to the "right" (or wrong) sites, I have never been hit with an "unauthorized" filter message. I would be very surprised if this continues past the actual launch date.

by Cassidy on Oct 19, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

correction - I may have erred about the appt of Amtraks board - I think under current legislation the board is appointed by POTUS, under staggered terms. It is still not treated as a govt agency under law though, AFAIK.

What cassidy posts sounds right to me, from what I know of issues with filters.

by RidesMegaBusandAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

Okay, maybe I should not have accused anyone of trolling yet -- but it is always shocking to me when people post anon and have volumes of technical knowledge about subject matter (ie: who do you work for?).

In any case, my broader point is that these content filters are always subject to these problems, and they are not cheap (they require thousands in annual upkeep). In fact, this is not a problem of a faulty vendor (they are all faulty and simply shouldn't be used in this way). I am fighting this in Montgomery County government, and their response is: "My understanding is that this is not a case of 'pay more money, get better system.'"

Ie: You can't "fix" this -- the problem is inherent in what you're trying to achieve? Who will write the filtering definitions? That's not a college philosophy question, somebody is already programming the filter to their liking and deploying it!

by David on Oct 19, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

I think anyone who has been in the work world these last 20 years, in the private sector or govt, has some awareness of filters and their occasional stupidity.

As for who writes them, I assume the Software firms do, in response to what they see as helping their sw sell. There have been discussions of that over the years.

What I found sophomoric was the implied belief that Amtrak has a "definition of pornography" which I very much doubt. AFAIK companies that buy filtering software do so off the shelf and do NOT specify their own definitions.

The post, and your follow ups, just feels odd to me. Amtrak is doing only what most companies do, and what their direct competitors do that offer WiFi. And they are jumped on with implications that they have an antigay agenda, or perhaps are hostile to the viewpoints of the Guardian (perhaps Amtrak thinks the Guardian too hostile to PM Cameron? I doubt that) If you want to make the case to MoCo that they are better off not purchasing filtering software, go ahead. I dont think its fair to accuse of Amtrak of some nefarious agenda based on what I suspect was a routine business decision.

Does anyone know if non transport WiFi services, like all those chain restaurants that now have WiFi, use filters? My guess is they do.

by RidesMegaBusandAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 3:23 pm • linkreport

"Uh, we are talking about censoring newspapers not porn? And Amtrak is not a private business?"

"Ie: You can't "fix" this -- the problem is inherent in what you're trying to achieve?"

may i suggest that your writing would be clearer if you used question marks for questions (even rhetorical ones) and not whenever you feel you are making a challenging statement.

by RidesMegaBusAndAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 3:26 pm • linkreport

Ah, but that's where you're wrong. These are all contracts, and Amtrak would be a very big filtering contract.

The client (Amtrak) can make all sorts of requests (especially through how they negotiate their agreement). At this scale, I find it hard to believe the vendor wouldn't adjust the system.

A polisci Prof. at UMD just emailed me info on how various Maryland counties deploy private filters, and end up with obvious and concerning results (ie: liberal counties blocking conservative content, and vice versa in conservative counties). Now, this is not to say Amtrak is a bunch of conservatives or anti-gay, but surely you can see where once you go down this road, people can't help but be pissed? LGBT sites will always be a much-more likely red-flag than hetero sites. But that's just one example.

If the Supreme Court couldn't define pornography, I find it hard to believe a computer programmer in Worcester (or whatever) will do any better. In Montgomery County, the filter upkeep costs $64,000 a YEAR. Who knows what it costs systemwide on Amtrak.

by David on Oct 19, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

RidesMegaBusandAmtrak wrote: "Amtrak IS technically a private business."

As you noted in your subsequent post; Amtrak's Board is appointed by the President, with Senate confirmation much like any member of the President's cabinet.

And of course Congress likes to micro manage Amtrak from time to time by saying "Do this or we'll cut your funding", even though most of the time Congress does more harm than good with their conditions.

As for Amtrak, it is technically a private company. However, 100% of the preferred stock is held by the US DOT in trust for Congress & the American people. And it is the preferred stock that carries the voting rights in this case, a departure from the normal where common stock carries the voting rights. The common stock that does exist pays no dividends and carries no voting rights, which makes it essentially useless and not even worth the value of the paper it’s printed on.

So for all intent and purpose, Amtrak is a privately owned company that is controlled 100% by the US Government.

by AlanB on Oct 19, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

SteveF: "I wonder if the long-distance trains will get WiFi anytime soon?".
According to public Amtrak documents, the set roll-out dates are the eastern Amfleet I trains for October, the 3 California corridor services in November, and the AutoTrain lounge cars by late 2011. In Amtrak's FY12 business plan, the budget was for $13.5 million to complete installation on other corridors and long distance trains in FY12, but this could slip if funding gets cut.

by AlanF on Oct 19, 2011 4:25 pm • linkreport

"As you noted in your subsequent post; Amtrak's Board is appointed by the President, with Senate confirmation much like any member of the President's cabinet."

But IIUC the president cannot dismiss them, as he can with cabinet members.

Of course the congress can impose conditions, just as it does with DCs payment in lieu of taxes. That does not create a Federal agency, in either case.

Certainly Congress COULD impose a condition on Amtrak - no censoring WiFi or we cut your funds. I wouldnt hold my breath.

@David. Thats an interesting result for the Maryland counties. It would however surprise me that Amtrak has a particular agenda (are the many anti-Amtrak pundit sites blocked I wonder?) Im going to have to invoke Occams razor - unless someone from Amtrak who actually manages the WiFi project comes here to confirm or deny it, my working hypothesis is that they did NOT take the time to specify anything, and just used something off the shelf.

Of course there are costs and benefits, and in this case, inherent issues in filtering. Megabus and Bolt Bus and McDonalds and Starbucks also need to worry about pissing folks off by censorship - AFAIK most of those large commercial entities that offer WiFi DO filter, deciding that losing a portion of the family market due to lil johny seeing the kinds of things some people like to look at, is a bigger risk than pissing off the folks who cant wait till they get home to read Anais Nin.

by RidesMegaBusAndAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 4:33 pm • linkreport

@RidesMega

I really don't get it -- I've never heard of a complaint about riders being offended by what people next to them are reading/watching. Well, I've certainly never heard about this as an issue that rose to the level of needing a net filter?

Ockham's razor is a principle of parsimony. All things being equal, the less convoluted explanation prevails. I think in this instance, it means removing a filter (simpler to justify), than paying for one (whether off-the-shelf or not). You use Ockhams razor to try and argue whether or not Amtrak ASKED for LGBT censorship. I'm not making that claim. Whether or not they asked for it - they shouldn't get it.

Do you work for the Censorship Industrial Complex? I don't get your perspective at all.... All inductive logic.

by David on Oct 19, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport

I'm on the train now. I had free wifi yesterday on the train, and it worked well. None today.

by djdc on Oct 19, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

"Ockham's razor is a principle of parsimony. All things being equal, the less convoluted explanation prevails. I think in this instance, it means removing a filter (simpler to justify), than paying for one (whether off-the-shelf or not). You use Ockhams razor to try and argue whether or not Amtrak ASKED for LGBT censorship. I'm not making that claim. Whether or not they asked for it - they shouldn't get it."

I did mean occams razor (who was ockham?) as far as the motivations at Amtrak - I read the OP and your comments as implying being nefarious. Occams razor is a guide to determining truth, not to analyzing costs and benefits of policy.

I assume that companies using Wifi fear complaints, either based on their experience, or that of others - I doubt they are spending the money for the hell of it. Certainly I recall many complaints when libraries first had internet (and yes complaints about kids seeing it by accident).

I do not work in the software industry, and have no financial stake in this. I have worked in businesses, and I think you are being somewhat naive about how business (and yes, in this respect Amtrak IS like a business) works. I also find this "Do you work for the Censorship Industrial Complex" somewhat ideological. Look, its fine if you have an ideological aversion to internet filtering. But I dont think its fair to expect businesses to behave based on ideological views of free speech.

And I AM a supporter of Amtrak, and I know that congress, while appropriating SOME money for Amtrak, has put great pressure on Amtrak to act like a business and compete. To me you are either libertarian or you arent. You want free speech, you have to let private companies act freely in their business interests as they see them (you can try to persuade them about their business interests, but I have not seen that in this thread, just ideological complaining) And the quibble that Amtrak is not really private, given the budget situation they are in, the strategic environment they find themselves in, seems to me to be GROSSLY unfair to Amtrak.

If you can make a BUSINESS case for Amtrak to not filter, do so. If you want CONGRESS to expand Amtraks appropriation to make up for revenue Amtrak feels it would lose if they dont filter, go ahead and ask congress. And if you feel filtering is so evil that no company should do it, fine, go complain about all companies that filter.

Attacking Amtrak for what its competitors do on the quibble about its appropriation is what is ticking me off.

And BTW, knowing this blog, I would think you MIGHT have expected that there are more people here who like Amtrak than there are people with a stake in the web filtering business.

by RidesMegabusAndAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

What evidence is there of this business need? I am sure there are far better uses - even those that relate to running a business.

In MY opinion (since we're sharing), it is naive to think this money gets you any net revenue. Show me the proof?

by David on Oct 19, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

Im not in the business of setting up or managing wifi networks. If I see a practice WIDELY shared by many companies in a given field, I assume THEY have done the analysis before spending their money. In this country we assume businesses are the experts in making decisions about their own policies, and except where laws establish regulations for a public purpose (and apply to all) we do not demand proof of their benefit. I think the burden of proof lies with those opposing specific business practice.

have you ever worked in marketing at a railroad, bus company, or even a chain restaurant (a coffe shop that offers wifi probably has a very different clientale and different business issues)? If not, your attitude, asserting your own opinion on the business case and demanding proof involves a great deal of "chutzpah".

by RidesMegabusAndAmtrak on Oct 19, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport


BTW,

http://www.bilerico.com/2010/11/amtrak_our_wifi_doesnt_discriminate.php

by RidesMegabusANDamtrak on Oct 19, 2011 5:03 pm • linkreport

Just used this with my iPad on a train back from CT to DC yesterday. Worked great -- no issues the entire time.

by Dave on Oct 19, 2011 5:13 pm • linkreport

I have deleted the original comment by David accusing someone of being a troll. We welcome pseudonymous commenting on GGW, as long as it complies with other provisions of our comment policy.

Normally, we don't announce deletions, but I'm doing so here because others have responded to the post. If you have follow-up questions or concerns, please email info@ggwash.org rather than post comments about this issue here.

by David Alpert on Oct 19, 2011 5:34 pm • linkreport

Yes, sorry David (and Mr. Occam aka Ockham, ahem). I attribute that to my overzealousness in wanting as few barriers to the flow of information as possible....

:)

by David on Oct 19, 2011 5:45 pm • linkreport

I'll say the lack of internet access on non-acela Amtrak trains has actual made a difference in whether I take a train VS flying in the past. I think this will provide a useful opportunity to get work done as you travel much more comfortably and productively than on an airplane, really offsetting the extra travel time.

As far as the content filtering, my hard drive is so choked with porn as it is I really don't see the need to download more as I'm riding the train. I mean do you really need up to the minute porn? Just prepare in advance and live with what you have for the few hours you are traveling.

by Doug on Oct 19, 2011 7:57 pm • linkreport

I find it mildly comforting knowing that someone probably can't access a weapons construction website or one with instructions on best places on a train for maximum collateral damage.

At the same time, when I travel with my kids, its nice to know that I don't have to worry about porn or extreme graphical content being displayed, with speakers, in the next row.

While I'm not crazy about the gov't censoring content, in reality its just a couple hours on the train. Have we digressed to such a level of insensitivity and selfishness that we can't put ANY constraints on our behavior?

by Amtrak Arnie on Oct 20, 2011 12:13 am • linkreport

@AmtrakArnie & Doug -- All with you guys on civility and such. But again, who says this is a problem right now? I've not seen such problems when riding Amtrak -- why do we think Amtrak riders will be watching porn and acting crazy if we take down the censorship wall? I've seen no reason to believe Amtrak riders will do that. They tend to be fairly courteous!

by David on Oct 20, 2011 12:26 am • linkreport

Amtrak ought to have an easy form where you can report incorrectly blocked content. When the block notification pops up, you can click a button, put in your e-mail address and a comment about why the site shouldn't be blocked, it sends them that info with the URL, and then the people in charge of filtering make a decision and send you a response in a week.

This is not that hard.

@David
Have you ever spent time monitoring a bank of computers at a public library? Because people are looking at porn all the time on those. Not saying it's a huge problem on Amtrak but I can see them wanting to avoid it.

Also, as a sidebar, it seems like every time filtering comes up people are always complaining about discrimination against gay stuff with filtering, as if somebody just goes around and specifically picks out the websites that are to be filtered rather than a computer doing it based on keywords. If a legit gay news site is blocked by an organization nearly 100% of the time it's unintentional. That's why you need to have a feedback system for the filtering so you can create a whitelist.

by MLD on Oct 20, 2011 9:44 am • linkreport

Someone has to make that form, someone also has to receive that form and then modify the firewall; all that costs money. Filtered internet is just more expensive than non-filtered in the first place anyway. There are really only two reasons to have it that I can think of, one is if as a business you are trying to increase worker productivity by limiting their time wasting options. The other is to save the children from witnessing the horrors of the world for a few more years. I find it hard to see how Amtrak directly aligns with either of these two motives though you could come up with some tenuous round about logic to apply each.

The point I was trying to make earlier that seemed to have gone right over your heads is that people bring their own personal computers on the train. It's not at all the same situation as at a library. People could have been watching hardcore pornography on their computers aboard trains prior to any internet being connected and they will continue to be able to do so. Every one of you making these dumb arguments about some kid looking over your shoulder and seeing you watching porn doesn't seem to understand that that can just as easily happen now. That kid or anyone else has no way of knowing whether that's live streaming porn or porn you brought from home. I'd wager that most male adults actually do have some porn stored somewhere on their personal computer already (YES YOU!!). Nothing is stopping them from watching it in the middle of Starbucks or Union Station or anywhere else other than their own humility. Even the technologically challenged could be walking around reading Hustler or Playboy in public settings if they felt so inclined. I've even seen those magazines on sale in train stations. As others have mentioned though, I haven’t really heard of this being a big problem on Amtrak trains.

As far as bias and censorship, it's true that these are just prepackaged products that companies purchase whole but there are different filter products with different moral standards political leanings that are somewhat known. You are making a choice of what to censor when you select the product rather than companies coming up with their own standards and policies they can simply select one that they feel is appropriate. Amtrak is NOT a huge customer though; all these trains put together only probably amounts to a few hundred laptops running simultaneous at any given time on extremely slow connections. There are probably more computers in any given office park or downtown building in the country. It would be ridiculous for them to have their own custom filtering product designed from the ground up for such a small amount of traffic.

Filtering in this way is not a violation of free speech or anything else though. Nothing is stopping you from bringing your own cellular internet card or any kind of stored material. They are not forbidding anything by filtering it simply not providing you free access to it. It's like if the train had a selection of books you could borrow and read, you couldn't accuse them of censorship for not having every book on the planet. Filters are also standard practice in most government offices, also not a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights for the same reasons (and more).

Whatever you do if you filter you are going to end up blocking things that shouldn't be. No one likes that. I think for Amtrak its silly waste of money that ends up in them providing less of a service.

by Doug on Oct 20, 2011 1:19 pm • linkreport

Amtrak already has a feedback form with Wi-Fi Service as one of the options from the drop-down menu. The page on their web site about Wi-Fi invites users to submit incorrectly blocked sites via the form.

http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1246044330724

by SEM on Oct 20, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

@SEM: Thanks for the reminder. Right after I got back from that trip, I'd e-mailed the person in Amtrak PR I'd corresponded with when I reviewed the WiFi for the Post--but her e-mail bounced and then I spaced on following up. I sent in a report via that form... we'll see what happens.

One bit of context: The only time I've been offended by anything seen or heard on Amtrak was when the two numskulls in the seat in front insisted on retelling the same vaguely homophobic joke from Union Station all the way through Delaware. I've become more fond of the Quiet Car since then.

- RP

by Rob Pegoraro on Oct 20, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

Sadly, the Amtrak experience has increasingly become an adventure into the uniquely American brand of buffoonish authoritarianism.

First, they gratuitously adopted the "airline-style" boarding where all passengers are kept penned up in the station, and only admitted to the tracks through a "boarding gate." OK, whatever. But then, they added airport-style personal searches, and the mandate to show ID in order to buy a ticket -- things I'd never ever seen even in the (realtively) terrorism-ridden states of Europe. And now, this attempt to control the information accessed by riders.

It's another disheartening example of how things truly are so much "Greater" (and freer) in most of the other advanced democracies. It's a shame we're politically unable and unwilling to follow all of the truly GOOD examples laid out for us in other countries.

by Jay R. on Oct 20, 2011 9:04 pm • linkreport

Why not charge a small fee for wifi, increase the reliability of the service, and call it a day?

by Rob on Oct 20, 2011 9:56 pm • linkreport

Is it the case that the Wifi filters on Acela censor less content than the Wifi filter on the Northeast regional? I don't know the answer to the question, since I only ride steerage - but maybe someone else does.

by David on Oct 22, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

Last week when I took Regional 162 to NYC, it had wifi but the SSID was hidden (I already knew what it was, but they had it WPA2 protected). Yesterday going down to DC, the train had wifi but wasn't connecting, but the train up did. I usually do a VPN connection to my school to bypass the filtering and to secure the connection.

by Ken Conaway on Oct 23, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

Theres always so much talk about content filtering and people just dont realize all of that can be solved with a VPN. Not many people are aware but Amtrak is just geo locating the IP address and restricting based on that.

I have a different case, but when I am traveling overseas and can't get Hulu access because of the geo IP block, I just fire up HMA Pro VPN and it lets me access it.

by Bryan on Oct 26, 2011 5:14 pm • linkreport

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