Web

See a 451 error code? It means the site's been censored

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The Internet has become a prime battling ground in the debate over free speech and censorship, and a new error code is giving web users the gift of transparency. Now, when you see a 451 message, you’ll know that the content you’re trying to view has been blocked … by Big Brother (or something to that effect). The code, a clever nod to Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, alerts the user that a page is “unavailable for legal reasons,” and should also include an explanation as to the issue at hand, and who exactly took issue with it.

While HTTP codes are rarely anything to get excited about (seeing a 404 File Not Found code is always a nuisance), the new protocol is meant to increase transparency around why certain websites are inaccessible. It will also give us a better idea to calculate the amount of content — be it blog posts, videos, social media, or otherwise — are removed from the public domain for legal reasons. And of course, everyone appreciates a sense of clarity (though many of these 451 codes may raise more questions around the content’s absence).

“As censorship became more visible and prevalent on the Web, we started to hear from sites that they’d like to be able to make this distinction,” wrote IETF chair Mark Nottingham in a statement. “More importantly, we started to hear from members of the community that they wanted to be able to discover instances of censorship in an automated fashion.”

But don’t get too excited about being able to determine what the government doesn’t want you to see. Applying the 451 code will likely be discretionary, at least for the time being. Some sites might have to use the HTTP 404 code, and others may not be able to reveal why they’ve been taken down. So while it’s not perfect, it’s certainly an attempt at un-muddling the often-opaque waters of digital censorship.

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