Error 451 – Censored

by Mike on February 3, 2016

in News

Websites that have been censored through legal means are now being marked by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) with a special HTTP error code. Error 451 is named after the famed Ray Bradbury novel about censorship and will be seen on browser windows when users around the world try to access web pages that have been blocked by government regulators.

The Need for Error 451

Censorship is not a problem of third world nations or people under totalitarian dictatorships. Censorship is a problem everywhere. Most recently, governments in the European Union have applied censorship quite heavy-handedly to combat the problem of copyright infringement. There is a huge argument over whether or not censorship should be used even when it is for a lawful cause. But whatever side of the fence you are on, you are going to come up against website blocks of some kind or another. At least the IETF has agreed to let Internet users know when the page that they are trying to access has been shut out on purpose.

Filtering the Internet can be good or bad, depending on what is done and why, and sometimes even how. Some people are glad that illegal sites and other pages that have dangerous content can be censored to protect their children and themselves from others who would use the content to do harm. Others argue that although protection is good, censorship conflicts with their basic rights and freedoms. It is difficult to strike a balance here, and knowing where and what content is being filtered is a good start.

The tech community had long expressed the need for a standard that identifies Internet censorship and informs users when it is happening. Groups like 451 Unavailable, Article 19 and Lumen, along with individuals in the fields of Internet security and software engineering have chimed in to create awareness of this need within the IETF and among the general public. Three and a half years ago, Terrence Eden came up with the specific idea of having a code that identified censorship as the specific reason behind a web page or domain being inaccessible. He noticed the problem when a content sharing site was reluctantly blocked by his ISP and began worrying that more content censorship would follow because of the lack of respect for net neutrality. He was right. Tim Bray brought the idea to IEFT Chairman Mark Nottingham, who was not too keen on the idea at first for technical reasons. But despite his reservations, he saw the support that the new code was getting from websites and realized the merits of having the special code to highlight acts of censorship. Nottingham warns, however, that using the code is no guarantee since governments can move to ban its use by web servers, i.e. sites like Twitter, Github, Google and Facebook that have experienced government pressure from different countries to take down certain content.

Crossing Fingers for Implementation

The HTTP status code Error 451 has been given the green light by the IETF, which handles the development and promotion of voluntary internet standards. But it is actually the Internet Service Providers that will have to implement the status code for the error to appear on their users’ browsers. ISPs have a lot of freedom with the use of different and sometimes unique or generic error codes. It’s anyone’s guess whether his or her ISP will chose to use Error 451 or some other special code or just the usual message that the page can’t be accessed, like 403 Forbidden.

Advocates of Error 451 hope that all ISPs will comply because we need to know when our content is being censored. One reason for labeling censorship – other than knowing that a site has been blocked intentionally – is knowing why and for how long if not permanently. Users should also know the details of a blocked site or page so that they can know the proper channels for challenging it when they feel that it has been executed in error. There are a lot of agencies that can call for content blocks and a lot of legal documentation that a block can be based on. We may have to accept content filtering for the time being, but we should not be prevented from having a fair chance at fighting against it when we feel that it is not in our best interests.

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