Government-imposed online censorship has become increasingly prevalent over the past few years. And the current legislative trends from governments around the world point to a future filled with blocked websites. But simply stopping this from happening is only one part of the battle. When censorship does happen, we need a sign that clearly tells us that that’s the reason for a site’s inaccessibility.
Enter Tim Bray, a software developer at Google who has proposed a solution: a “451” error code that displays anytime you visit a site blocked by the government. The number 451 is in honor of late author Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, first published in 1950, warned of a dystopian world defined by government-imposed censorship (in the form of burning any house that contains books).
“We can never do away entirely with legal restrictions on freedom of speech. On the other hand, I feel that when such restrictions are imposed, they should be done so transparently; for example, most civilized people find Britain’s system of superinjunctions loathsome and terrifying,” said Bray in an interview with the Guardian. “While we may agree on the existence of certain restrictions, we should be nervous whenever we do it; thus the reference to the dystopian vision of Fahrenheit 451 may be helpful. Also, since the Internet exists in several of the many futures imagined by Bradbury, it would be nice for a tip of the hat in his direction from the Net, in the year of his death.”
The Internet already has a number of similar HTTP codes built in for when things go awry. such as 404 Page Not Found, or 504 Gateway Timeout.
Bray’s idea was inspired by a blog post from self-described technology “enthusiast” Terence Eden, who was confronted by a “403 Forbidden” error when he tried to access file-sharing site The Pirate Bay, which was recently banned in the United Kingdom. Eden’s post gained wide attention after it appeared on Slashdot.
In the hopes of making the 451 error code actually happen, Bray has sent a proposal to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which oversees Internet technology standards. According to the Guardian, the IETF is expected to consider Bray’s idea when it meets late next month. But there’s no guarantee that it will be adopted.
“This is a smart and conservative group and it’s possible that someone will point out a fatal flaw in the idea, or that while such a status code is sensible, the number ‘451’ is inappropriate for technical reasons. I’d be mildly surprised, but not too terribly; designing the internet is hard,” said Bray.
While the homage to Bradbury seems apt, it’s not entirely accurate; Bradbury repeatedly asserted that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship. Rather, the book was a response to the rise of television, and its effects on people’s interest in literature. Given how severely the Internet has exacerbated a move away from books (or any type of long-form reading) — at least in younger generations — it’s not entirely clear that the author would appreciate the tribute.