The Guardian picked up on a story about a new HTTP status message that’s being proposed to indicate that content on the Internet has been blocked for legal reasons.
HTTP status codes are standardized messages that tell you what’s going on with the content you’re trying to access online. You’re probably most familiar with “404 Not Found” which crops up when you enter a URL that doesn’t exist or “403 Forbidden” if you’re trying to access something you’re not allowed to. Developer Tim Bray came up with the idea for this new HTTP status when he read about certain British Internet service providers (ISPs) returning a 403 error to users trying to access The Pirate Bay.
A 403 (forbidden) error might be a little misleading to users since it usually means that the server you’re trying to access (in this case, the Pirate Bay’s web server) is refusing to fulfill your request (in this case, your request to load their webpage,) but the Pirate Bay server wasn’t refusing the request, it was the ISP. The new HTTP code proposed here would return error 451 which would indicate that the content has been blocked for legal reasons.
451 is a reference to recently deceased author, Ray Bradbury, who penned Fahrenheit 451, a science fiction novel about government censorship (451° Fahrenheit is the temperature at which books will catch fire.) The proposal is a bit nerdy (the draft also contains a Monty Python reference,) but hey, it’s the Internet. There’s an HTTP code for trying to brew coffee in an Internet-enabled teapot, so an error 451 wouldn’t be out of place and is probably much more useful than a coffee pot protocol if not as tasty.
The heart of the idea is transparency and accuracy. If content is going to be censored, we should at least be properly informed instead of hiding the censorship behind a vague error message. Also, if you’re running into a problem that you don’t think you should be having (say, with a website for work or one that you run yourself), it’s essential to have good information about what’s causing the problem and a 403 error might lead you down the wrong troubleshooting path if your server is being blocked by someone.
With continuing concerns about piracy and controversies surrounding sites like The Pirate Bay and Megaupload, this newly proposed status message seems like a great idea and a good way for citizens to take some control of the situation rather than waiting for governments and telecom companies to decide how the Internet should work. You can check out Tim Bray’s blog for more updates.