Error 451: How to tell when websites have been censored

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Error 451 is the new Ray Bradbury-inspired HTTP code for online censorship.

If you’ve ever tried to visit a webpage that’s no longer available, you’ve seen the “404 Not Found” error alerting you that the sever can’t find that page.

The “404” part of that message is an HTTP status code, one of a collection of standard codes that provide information about data transfers to your web browser. Now the Internet Engineering Steering Group is adding one more error code for your browser—but this time it will make it all too clear why you can’t see something. As of last week, there’s a new status code indicating that a site can’t be accessed – not because of a broken link, but because the content is being blocked by a government. The frequency of server shutdowns in increasing, according to ISPreview, with such sites as The Pirate Bay coming under legal fire for copyright violations.

The IESG recently approved status code 451 that tells visitors they can’t see the requested content due to “legal obstacles,” which usually means government censorship. The call for a new code was made by Canadian software developer Tim Bray in 2012. “This document specifies a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code for use when a server operator has received a legal demand to deny access to a resource or to a set of resources which includes the requested resource. It tells the user that the site he or she is trying to access is working and reachable, but that they’re being prevented from accessing it for legal reasons. The author of the specification, XML co-inventor Tim Bray, argues that Error 451 should also return some text about what authority is blocking the site, and under what law. As Bray tells The Verge, “It is imaginable that certain legal authorities may wish to avoid transparency, and not only forbid access to certain resources, but also disclosure that the restriction exists.”

It’s a standardized, machine-readable way of saying that a page has been taken down as a result of censorship, which means that it will be easier to determine how many blog posts or videos or tweets get taken offline for non-technical reasons. But the code can also be implemented by sites themselves, giving frequently-censored companies such as Google, Github, Facebook, and Twitter a way to let the user know they’re being blocked. The most famous example of Internet censorship is China’s so-called “Great Firewall,” which blocks users within the country from accessing websites the Chinese government finds politically objectionable. Each year, Reporters Without Borders, a freedom of information nonprofit, publishes an “Enemies of the Internet” list in which it identifies governments and agencies that censor the Internet most heavily; last year’s list included Pakistan’s Telecommunications Authority, China’s State Internet Information Office, and the US’s National Security Agency, which the group criticized for its extensive online surveillance.

A government body may decide to block more torrent or streaming sites, or perhaps the “right to be forgotten” in Europe will be expanded to affect specific webpages. Whatever the reason, in any country where there’s at least some freedom its citizens must know when their governments have restricted their ability to access information.

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