The infamous 404 Not Found Error is the bane of every internet user’s existence. It usually rears its ugly head when you try to reach content that isn’t available. But it doesn’t really specify why the site you’re looking for isn’t available.

But, now, a global Internet regulatory body will let you know if someone (read: a censoring authority) is blocking your access to a site. The 451 HTTP status code aims to help report legal obstacles to a user.

A group of engineers who help review and update the standards used on the internet approved the new status code on 18 December. The number is a hat tip to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). And was announced with a tweet:

The code is meant to indicate something that is unavailable for varying legal reasons, which could range from a takedown notice served to Google or censorship by a national government

The description of the status code says: “This status code indicates that the server is denying access to the resource as a consequence of a legal demand. The server in question might not be an origin server. This type of legal demand typically most directly affects the operations of ISPs and search engines.Responses using this status code SHOULD include an explanation, in the response body, of the details of the legal demand: the party making it, the applicable legislation or regulation, and what classes of person and resource it applies to.”

While there is some procedure still involved, web publishers and administrators can start implementing it on their websites effectively from now.

Representational image | Source: Reuters

What 451 can and cannot do

Basically, now when you see this code pop up on your screen you will get a much better explanation than the one provided by the generic 403 code.

The 403 status code says “Forbidden”, but it doesn’t say “I can’t show you that for legal reasons.”

Websites like Twitter, Facebook and Google, which are forced to censor content against their will in certain jurisdictions, will be keen to make use of this code to clear the air with their users and say ‘it’s not us, it’s the government’.

Representational image | Source: Reuters

Whether or not it actually works is another story. It’s not like you can guarantee that all attempts to censor content will be conveniently labelled by the censor. Nonetheless, the engineers are hoping that it will help build systems to track censorship.

(Feature image sourced from Wikimedia Commons)