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.

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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.

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