451: Web censorship status code

451: Web censorship status code

Summary: Everyone knows a 404 Web status messages means you can reach the Web server, but it can't find the page you're looking for. In these days of Internet censorship, a new HTTP Web status message, 451, has been proposed for pages and sites blocked by censorship.

TOPICS: Censorship

TIm Bray thinks you should know when censorship is blocking your from a Web site.

TIm Bray thinks you should know when censorship is blocking you from a Web site.

Back in the early days of the Web, we set up Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status messages to let people know what was going on with a Web server. Today, we still use 401 error messages for pages you're not authorized to see, 403 pages for pages you can't see even with authentication, and the ever popular 404 for Web pages that can't be found. Now, with the rise of Internet censorship, Tim Bray is proposing a new HTTP code: 451, for Web servers and pages that are being censored,

Bray, a leading Google Android developer and co-creator of one of the first Web search engines, Open Text and XML, has proposed to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) that code 451 be used for, "when resource access is denied for legal reasons. This allows server operators to operate with greater transparency in circumstances where issues of law or public policy affect their operation. This transparency may be beneficial both to these operators and to end users."

Formally, this would be:

451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons

This status code indicates that the server is subject to legal restrictions which prevent it servicing the request.

Since such restrictions typically apply to all operators in a legal jurisdiction, the server in question may or may not be an origin server. The restrictions typically most directly affect the operations of ISPs and search engines.

Responses using this status code SHOULD include an explanation, in the response body, of the details of the legal restriction; which legal authority is imposing it, and what class of resources it applies to.

The name of this code, Bray notes in passing comes from the late Ray Bradbury's classic science-fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451. In it, Firemen no longer fight fires, but start them to burn books. The title comes from the ignition point for paper.

Bray also credits Terence Eden, a well-known mobile software manager, for pointing out that there are no good Web error messages for censorship. Eden had noticed that when he tried to get The Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent file sharing site currently blocked in the United Kingdom by government decree, his ISP served "an HTTP 403 error." But, according to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) specifications, "The 4xx class of status code is intended for cases in which the client seems to have erred."

Eden continued, "Now, I haven't made an error when making this request. Furthermore: The server understood the request, but is refusing to fulfill it. In this case, the server did not even see the request. It was intercepted by my ISP and rejected by them on legal grounds." Therefore, none of the existing "error" codes fitted.

This isn't a new problem. Eden references an essay on the lack of Web censorship codes from 2008. Perhaps people are more aware of it as Internet censorship has grown more common.

Internet Censorship used to be seen as something outside the West. It was the Great Chinese Firewall; Middle-Eastern countries like Iran blocking access to Twitter and other specific sites or former dictatorships such as Egypt sealing off their entire Internet borders. Now, it's come home.

In the UK, ISPs were required to block access to The Pirate Bay by May 30. Web sites, like Megaupload are taken down by government agencies, and their users can't get to their own files. I think Bray is right. It is indeed time to let people know when a site they know and trust is actually unavailable for some technical reason and when it's been locked down by a government.

Related Stories:

Goodbye, Pirate Bay: O2 forced to block access

UK ISPs must block The Pirate Bay by May 30

Indian court postpones Facebook, Google censorship hearing

Iran's Deadly Cyber Police: Indefinite Detention and Execution for Netizens

Thailand endorses Twitter censorship: A step back for democracy?

Topic: Censorship

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  • Too broad and vague

    [i]"when it's been locked down by a government"[/i]

    The idea presents numerous problems. What about a court "gag order" in a civil or criminal law suit? The same for an administrative agency ruling. The term "for legal reasons" is much too vague. What is to stop a site from generating a fake "for legal reasons" page to give the impression of "nefarious reasons" when the requested page has in fact been served? Certainly the average person isn't going to cross-check log files to see if the alleged 451 page is really a 451 code. (And how does the USER even check something like that?)

    Also, that assumes that the [i]ISP[/i] will openly admit to collaborating in censorship. What is to prevent governments engaging in censorship from making it illegal to serve up a 451 error code? In the US there are "national security" letters that can be issued by certain government agencies such as the FBI where the recipient--such as a library being asked for a patron's access records--is prohibited from even admitting it has received a letter. If, for instance, local police ask whether the library has had "any request for information about Joe Blow", the library is supposed to lie and say no.
    • Too Broad and vague

      That's what the body of the message is for. The ISP that is blocking the site would put in the body of the message why the pages "will not be" served. As for the gag orders... Those of us that pay attention to which politician voted for this are busily working to get said idiot voted out of office. Because exactly as we expected, such laws were to combat "terrorism" are instead used to hunt drug dealers or to terrorize citizens.
    • In The US....

      A user would be able to check the legalities for any website closed by a court order in any case that wasn't sealed.

      ISPs have also admitted to being forced or coerced by the government (again, in the US) to shutting down certain sites, creating restrictions, or handing over to the government user information. (Comcast, Time Warner, Cox to name but a few who were openly against the SOPA legislation and voiced their concerns from real experience in dealing with the US government.)

      National Security Letters? Where are you coming up with this? The only time a US citizen or entity can be censored is with and through a court writ. I am studying computer forensic science and there is nothing like this Bob.

      My friend, you read too much sci-fi. And I agree, this is a needed and wonderful idea, and the 451 is perfect. (Rest in peace to Mr. Bradbury.)
      • Not all government censorship requires court approval

        [I]"National Security Letters? Where are you coming up with this? The only time a US citizen or entity can be censored is with and through a court writ. I am studying computer forensic science and there is nothing like this Bob."[/I]

        You obviously have not had Continuing Legal Education courses in the Patriot Act. One of the huge objections to NSL and similar things is that they [b]don't[/b] require court orders. In fact, filing anything with a court would be a violation. Remember--these were put in right after 9/11. They have never been repealed. I also doubt your Computer Forensics course went into the fact that there is a "national security" court (I don't recall the exact name) where the federal government can file for injunctions, etc., and the [i]defendant isn't told what evidence the government is presenting[/i] because it's classified. The defendant is expected to respond without knowing what he's disputing. (And, no, most lawyers aren't aware of it. The average lawyer deals almost exclusively with state-law issues such as torts, contracts, or state-agency matters, not with things that invoke national-security laws.)
      • National Security Letters

        According to the USDOJ, the FBI has issued more than 200,000 of these "fictitious" objects.
  • The Sky is Falling, - Oh, wait, maybe not

    SJVN as usual trying to take nothing and turn the masses against the opressive forces of evil, government, and Microsoft.

    Much ado about nothing.

    Must have been a very slow news week, his other blogs are just as fluffy and without substance.
    • RE: The Sky is Falling....

      If you were a web server, your response code would be '204'.
  • What will the code be for

    the page that displays when the page displayed for blocking a page for censorship is also censored? (because you know that will be coming)