A New “451” Error Message Would Tell Users When Governments Are Blocking Websites
If you don’t think book burning is a fair analogy for blocked websites, may I remind you that the British Library’s wi-fi filter recently blocked users from accessing Hamlet due to its “violent” content. And the Shakespeare-blocking library is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to inadvertent censorship. Over the years there’s been a steady stream of reports of innocent websites getting swept up in overzealous copyright crackdowns, and free expression activists fear the same will happen under British Prime Minister David Cameron’s controversial “pornwall.”
To fend off the chilling effects of heavy-handed internet restriction, the UK consumer rights organization Open Rights Group wants to create a new version of the “404 Page Not Found” error message, called “451 unavailable,” to specify that a webpage wasn’t simply not there, it was ordered to be blocked for legal reasons.
In case you missed the reference, the number is shout-out to Ray Bradbury’s book-burning government censorship novel Fahrenheit 451. The campaign’s hope is to increase transparency and shine a light on web censorship—both intended and inadvertent. If the group gets its way, the 451 message would include information on who initiated the block, the reasons for it, links to the relevant court documents, and steps for how to go about challenging the block.
Though the campaign’s roots are in the UK, the new HTTP code would be available globally. (The idea for a new 451 status code isn’t a new one—Google developer Tim Bray first submitted a proposal for the new code to the Internet Engineering Task Force in June, and is reportedly happy to see the rights group picking up the effort.)
Here’s an example of what the 451 message would look like, according to the campaign’s website:
HTTP/1.1 451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons Content-Type: text/htmlError 451:
Unavailable For Legal Reasons
Error 451: Unavailable For Legal Reasons
Access to this domain has been restricted in the United Kingdom due to the Court Order [Blocked Website]/[Case number] following the Judgment [Name of Court Case].
This Court Order was imposed under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
This Court Order was became valid on [Date of start of Court Order] and is currently valid until [Court Order Expiration Date].
If you believe this that this web domain has been incorrectly blocked, please contact [the appropriate legal authority] at [the appropriate legal authority] or [the address of the appropriate legal authority].
It’s certainly an area in need of clarity. The 400 range of HTTP codes indicates a client error—401 “unauthorized” and 403 “forbidden” mean you don’t have permission to access the page. Beyond that, there’s no way to tell if acces is denied because authentication is required, the webpage is restricted, or if the the government ordered it go black entirely.
As of now, ISPs aren’t required to publish which websites they’re ordered to block, though some of them voluntarily do, albeit not to the detailed extent Open Rights Group is proposing. While the court orders that ISPs are sent requesting to take down sites are open to the public, they can be tricky to get ahold of. According to the group, ISPs are reluctant to hand over the documents.
The lion’s share of takedown requests are for copyright infringement, but in light of the UK porn filter and subsequent cries of government censorship, the timing for a transparency push is ripe. Open Rights Group has been hot on the case: It warned that the filter would snuff out more than just smut, and petitioned to stop the prime minister from “sleepwalking the UK into censorship.” “Censorship is rearing its ugly head in the UK,” the group wrote on its blog. “A number of proposals from the government and others put the free flow of information in the UK at risk, with suggestions that website blocking be used for content related to copyright infringement, terrorism and adult material.”
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with protecting intellectual property or discouraging sexual exploitation. But the fear, of course, is that it’s a slippery slope. When the government or the courts or the rights owners in Hollywood have the power to oust websites like a game of whack-a-mole, without explaining to consumers exactly why or how to contest it, what’s to stop the abuse of that power? More transparency can’t hurt.
H/T Digital Trends