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The IETF creates new HTTP status code to detect online censorship

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December 22, 2015

After working diligently since August of 2012, the IETF has finally cleared the path for a new HTTP status code in an effort to reflect online censorship, and to attempt to block it.

The new code status number is 451 and is in honor of Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451 in which specific books are banned, and any that are later found are burned.

The concept is that rather than a web server, proxy or some other system returning a 403 code to an internet browser when information is blocked (message: you are not authorized to see this page) the 451 error code will simply mean "unavailable for legal reasons".

Specifically, according to a draft RFC-- This status code indicates that the server is denying access to the resource as a consequence of a legal demand.

In such cases, the server in question might not be an origin server, hence the source of the scam. This type of legal demand typically affects the operations of ISPs and search engines.

The IETF published this proposal late last week. This should encourage some people to start using it early. There will be a few more steps before it becomes official.

It was first proposed back in June 2012 when British ISPs started being forced to block The Pirate Bay. That event sparked a blog post that proposed a special censorship code, and in turn a campaign to make it happen.

In a post on Friday, the chairman of the relevant working group, Mark Nottingham, revealed why it had taken so long to get approval-- because the people at the IETF were not persuaded this was a good utilization of a limited number of status codes.

"Initially, I and some others pushed back," daid Nottingham. "HTTP status codes are a constrained name space. Once we use everything from 400 to 499, we're out of luck. And while 451 met many of the guidelines for new status codes such as being potentially applicable to any resource, there wasn't any obvious way for servers to use it."

But as time passed, things have changed, added Nottingham-- "As censorship became more visible and prevalent on the internet, we started to hear from site owners that they'd like to be able to make this distinction. More importantly, we started to hear from members of the community that they wanted to be able to discover instances of censorship in an automated fashion."

Different groups have started spidering the web to look for specific examples of censorship, and the 451 code makes that task significantly easier, so people have come around to the idea.

Of course that doesn't mean that 451 will be used for all censorship efforts, but it does provide an official way to do so, and the IETF is hopeful that big firms like Google, Twitter and Facebook will start using it.

Nottingham also suggests that the error code could be used as a way to "prompt the user to try accessing the content in a different manner".

For example, it could point users to the Tor network as a way to bypass censorship. The Tor network is very well known to offer several ways to bypass such information.

However, don't expect to see 451 codes pop up in countries that routinely censor the internet. Typically, those countries are not overly keen on letting their citizens know just how much information they are hiding from them.

The code is in the best traditions of the internet-- using the network itself to gently press on efforts to control it.

Source: The Internet Engineering Task Force.

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