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HTTP Error 451 now adopted as global standard for web pages that are censored by governments

HTTP Error 451

(NaturalNews) Authoritarian governments all over the world – including some that are supposed to be democracies – are increasing their control over content exchanged on the Internet, because the only way they can continue controlling the various issue-oriented narratives is by silencing critics and those with competing ideas.

As noted by Motherboard, there is a new official Internet status code – HTTP 451 – developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the independent group that is responsible for the creation of many of the Internet's operating standards. So now, when a website has been blocked for so-called "legal reasons" (in other words, the page has been censored by a government), web surfers will be presented with the 451 "error" rather than the more generic 403 "forbidden" error.

The tech site says this is actually a victory of sorts, however – for transparency. Now, surfers will know precisely why a site is being blocked and what content a government tends to censor.

The code has been under development for about two years. It was first introduced by software engineer Tim Bray in 2013 after he was inspired by a 2012 blog post written by security analyst Terence Eden, whose call then for a censorship error code was plain:

My ISP have recently been ordered to censor The Pirate Bay. They have done so unwillingly and, it would seem, have complied only with the letter of the ruling. Their block is, for now, trivial to circumvent. I am concerned that this censorship will become more prevalent. As network neutrality dies, we will see more sites ordered to be blocked by governments who fear what they cannot understand.

'Initially, I pushed back'

As such, Eden proposed a new code and then Bray took up the cause. He selected "451" in reference to author Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel about censorship, Fahrenheit 451. But of course, web standards take some time to be approved and implemented.

In a recent post, Mark Nottingham, chair of the IETF HTTP Working Group, offered a broader explanation for the new censorship code.

"Initially, I and some others pushed back," he wrote, as cited by Motherboard. "HTTP status codes are a constrained name space; once we use everything from 400 to 499, for example, we're out of luck. Furthermore, while 451 met many of the guidelines for new status codes (such as being potentially applicable to any resource), there wasn't any obvious way for machines to use it -- i.e., this was something you could do in a header or the message body of a 403, so it didn't seem to justify expending a status code."

Nevertheless some websites began using the code anyway, unsanctioned but on an experimental basis, to see how it would work out. At that, Nottingham, et. al., got more and more positive feedback from site administrations regarding the code. And importantly, web advocacy organizations like Article19 and Lumen also became interested in a computer-readable alert that could spider the Web hunting for, and documenting, censored content. And the new HTTP status code could do that, Motherboard reported.

Will this 'out' some governments and make them more reluctant to censor after being exposed?

In addition, what took the project to the finish line was that the tech support was also available. And while some technical issues still need worked out, the code is immediately ready for use – so, what will it actually do?

"By its nature, you can't guarantee that all attempts to censor content will be conveniently labeled by the censor," Nottingham explains. "Although 451 can be used both by network-based intermediaries (e.g., in a firewall) as well as on the origin Web server, I suspect it's going to be used far more in the latter case, as Web sites like Github, Twitter, Facebook and Google are forced to censor content against their will in certain jurisdictions."

Some advocates of true net neutrality hope that the code may embarrass some jurisdictions, forcing them to be less prone to censor some content. We'll see how that works out.





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