Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jan 25, 2016
Error 451: Access to this website has been restricted by law

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

― Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

On December 17, 2015, 15 people from around the world dialled into a conference call to discuss, among other items on their agenda, a document cryptically named “draft-ietf-httpbis-legally-restricted-status-04”. This document intended to bring a new internet standard into force, addressing the need for end users to be able to know when access to certain websites is being restricted as a result of legal demands. The 15 members of the IESG, or Internet Engineering Steering Group, review draft standards produced by the technical community around the world and guide their entry into the Request for Comments (RFC), the set of standards that make up much of what we know as the internet.

Named in honour of the Ray Bradbury novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’, where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen’ whenever they are found, the document outlined a new HTTP status code, 451. One of the most familiar HTTP status codes to us is the 404 error code that we see when a website is no longer available or when there is a technical problem and the server cannot find the webpage we are looking for. But this new HTTP code is pretty special; 451 will indicate that the server is unable to show you the webpage that you have created because of a legal restriction. The intent of the status code is to make it more transparent in circumstances where issues of law or public policy are restricting the server operator’s ability to serve the content that you are asking for.

If the standard is implemented, it will allow civil rights and freedom of expression groups to build platforms that offer deeper insight into the level of censorship across the internet. Advocacy groups like Article19 had been strong supporters of such standards: for example aims to be a repository for the legal documents that they hope would be included when a 451 error is served. It would also serve as a location to get information on the various types and forms internet censorship takes across the world.

Such analysis would depend on the consistent use of the 451 error, and while its use will not be mandated, Mark Nottingham, who was involved in the standards creation, said the following to VICE media,

“By its nature, you can't guarantee that all attempts to censor content will be conveniently labeled by the censor. 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.”

The 451 standard sets another example of where the worlds of human rights, technology and law all coalesce. It serves to show that we must realize that these at times disparate systems are in a modern age interrelated, and we must be agile enough to keep up with an ever changing internet.

James Gannon is a cybersecurity and policy consultant specialising in critical infrastructure protection. He currently divides his time between Dublin, Ireland and Basel, Switzerland.

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