451 error: honoring Ray Bradbury while alerting users about governments blocking websites.

An Internet Censorship Notice To Honor Ray Bradbury

An Internet Censorship Notice To Honor Ray Bradbury

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 14 2012 8:45 AM

An Internet Censorship Notice To Honor Ray Bradbury

Writer Ray Bradbury in 2007.
Writer Ray Bradbury in 2007.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images

On the off chance that Ray Bradbury didn’t achieve artistic immortality through Fahrenheit 451, a fitting—though unconventional—tribute could preserve his legacy online while letting users know when a government is blocking access to a website.

After his ISP was ordered to block access to the file-sharing site the Pirate Bay, U.K. blogger Terence Eden pointed out a problem: When he tried to connect to the site, he received what’s called a 403 Forbidden error, which implies that the Pirate Bay—not the government—was denying him access.


There’s a whole list of status codes to describe what could happen when a server is accessed online. If you’ve ever clicked a broken link, you’ve probably come across the 404 Not Found error, which means a computer could reach a site’s server, but the information requested (a specific page, for example) wasn’t available. The 403 Forbidden error appears when a user’s computer reaches a server but is denied. These two codes often appear when a user tries to access a censored website, but neither fully explains that the government is preventing a connection.

After Eden suggested a few ideas for a new code, Slashdot commenter IonOtter suggested using the number 451 as a tribute to Bradbury’s signature dystopian novel about book burning. The notification would be dubbed HTTP status code 451, and it would tell users when a site they’ve tried to visit is “unavailable for legal reasons.” Then Tim Bray, a developer advocate at Google and a longtime software entrepreneur, drafted a proposal this week.

The primary drawback: A government that blocks access to a website could also ban the 451 code. In that case, it may not mean a whole lot to the average user, particularly those in countries that widely restrict Internet access. It would fill a technical void, though, by providing more accurate information where it can be used. And maybe—just maybe—it could make censors think of Bradbury’s fireman before putting up a new firewall.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.