A new internet code inspired by the dystopian writings of Ray Bradbury aims to let users know when websites are unavailable because they have been censored by the state—Error Code 451.
The Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), a global body which reviews internet standards, on Monday approved the XML specification, which can be used to alert users when requested content has been blocked by "legal obstacles," typically government censorship. Tim Bray, a former Google engineer and co-author of the code, suggested the term in 2012 as a reference to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a 1953 novel in which books are outlawed and burned—an allegory for state suppression of free speech.
"[A]s 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 HTTP Working Group chair Mark Nottingham in a blog post last week. "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."
Sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Github are often required to block access to their websites in repressive countries like North Korea and Russia, or during times of civil unrest, such as the 2011 protests in Egypt and the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.
"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," Bray told The Verge on Monday.
However, web developers believe it could prove particularly useful in countries like the UK, which in 2012 forced internet service providers (ISPs) to block user access to the torrent site The Pirate Bay. Now, instead of greeting visitors with a vague error code such as 404 for "not found" or 403 for "access forbidden," ISPs could use 451 to signal government influence.
"In some jurisdictions, I suspect that censorious governments will disallow the use of 451, to hide what they're doing," Nottingham wrote. "We can't stop that (of course), but if your government does that, it sends a strong message to you as a citizen about what their intent is. That's worth knowing about, I think."