Calling Out Censorship By Name, Or At Least By Number

404 Error Message


“Thanks also to Ray Bradbury.”

With those words, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) announced new HTTP status code 451, to be used when access to a website is denied due to legal demands.

Most users pay little attention to status codes, which are numerical indicators of how a website is responding to a browser request. If they are familiar with status codes at all, they have most likely encountered a “404 – File Not Found” or possibly an occasional “403—Forbidden.”

But O2 UK product manager Terence Eden recently suggested that 403 wasn’t really the right code for situations in which content was blocked by operation of law.

Status codes are functional—not political—but someone in the IETF decided that blocking Internet  content is worthy of at least a hint of commentary.  Thus the shout-out to Bradbury and his anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451.

Practically speaking, users still aren’t going to pay much attention to source codes, but at least now Internet service providers have a direct mechanism for telling users when websites are unavailable due to censorship, rather than just providing an inscrutable access restriction notification.

And if users know when websites are blocked for legal reasons, they can use that information politically, if they’re able and so inclined.