Error 451: A New Bradbury-Inspired Code for Online Censorship

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When you can’t get to a page on the web, you get an error code instead. The most familiar is Error 404 — “Page Not Found” — but there’s a whole universe of obstacles that could stand between your browser and the page you want. And on Monday, the Internet Engineering Steering Group approved a new one: Error 451 — Unavailable for Legal Reasons.

The new code applies to pages that have fallen victim to government censorship, which has reportedly been on the rise globally for many years now. The number 451 wasn’t chosen at random: It’s a reference to Ray Bradbury’s crucial work of anti-censorship sci-fi Fahrenheit 451. Perfectly apt for a code that denotes the online equivalent of book-burning.

The IESG recommends that every 451 message include information about who denied access to the page and why, which is a step in the direction of transparency. But the organization also points out that there’s nothing to stop censorious government entities from getting around it:

It is possible that certain legal authorities might wish to avoid transparency, and not only demand the restriction of access to certain resources, but also avoid disclosing that the demand was made.”

Bradbury passed away in 2012, and would likely not be comforted to know that we continue to live inside one of his novels.