Have you ever wondered what those Internet error messages mean?
You know the ones. Maybe your Wi-Fi connection is shaky and you’re hit with a “500 Internal Server Error” or a “504 Gateway Timeout.” Sometimes you try to bypass the login screen (what? everyone does it) and see a “403 Forbidden,” or you keep refreshing your browser to buy some concert tickets, but all you get is a “429 Too Many Requests.”
The worst, right?
Those codes and other online standards are created by a
decentralized secret society of hackers worldwide task force of volunteers called the Internet Engineering Task Force.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) defines itself as “a large open international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet.“
This loosely-organized consortium is completely volunteer-run, with a strong emphasis on transparency and democratic practices. Membership is free, and different working groups each focus on individual issues relating to fair and open Internet use.
Although IETF was originally associated with the U.S. government, it’s since become its own international entity — just one of the larger consortium of Internet overseers affiliated with the Internet Society.
Now the IETF has come up with a brand new error code to add to the list…
Originally proposed by software engineer Tim Bray, Error 451 encourages web services to display pertinent legal information when a site is blocked or taken down by a government or ISP. It’s an alternative to the ol’ generic 403 Forbidden — which, while not wrong, is certainly misleading.
“As censorship became more visible and prevalent on the Web, we started to hear from sites that they’d like to be able to make this distinction,” explained Mark Nottingham, chair of IETF’s HTTP Working Group. “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.”
…and it’s based on science fiction.
The name itself is a nod to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian sci-fi novel “Fahrenheit 451,” about a future American society where books are banned and burned. It’s a famously harrowing tale of government overreach and oppression through censorship. (and, yes, there’s a film version if that’s more your speed).
The act of book burning — literally destroying physical knowledge — is pretty much the hallmark sign of government oppression. And while it’s hard to light the Internet on fire, clandestine censorship is the next worst thing.
At first, this sounds like silly science fictional fun … until you realize just how serious the problem is.
Most of us probably think that Internet censorship is only a problem in dictatorial countries like North Korea. But it’s happening more and more in countries like America.
Right here in the United States, Google saw an alarming rise in censorship requests from the government in 2012, and it has remained steady in the years since.
Back in 2010, for example, the Department of Homeland Security restricted access to the popular hip-hop blog Dajaz1.com for a full year due to bureaucratic holdups from vague accusations of copyright infringement.
There was also that super-shady situation with MegaUpload where the U.S. government shutdown a New Zealand-based web service and arrested the founder on vague and questionable charges. Yes, there are some gray areas when it comes to pirated content, but there are also plenty of other legitimate reasons for people to use torrents and storage sites — not to mention that whole “due process of law” thing.
Error 451 won’t stop authorities from limiting our access to free information. But it’s still a big step for transparency.
It’s bad enough if any government or ISP wants to restrict your access to information.
But it’s even worse when they pull the wool over your eyes and pretend they’re not doing it at all. If an authority wants to suppress your right to receive information, the least they can do is tell you that they’re doing it. It might not change the situation, but it can empower the people to hold their governments accountable.
That is, if they cooperate.
“In some jurisdictions, I suspect that censorious governments will disallow the use of 451, to hide what they’re doing,” Mark Nottingham said. “We can’t stop that (of course), but if your government does that, it sends a strong message to you as a citizen about what their intent is. That’s worth knowing about, I think.”
On the bright side, not all governments have direct control over Internet access. But even when a government forces web services such as Google or Twitter to restrict their content to specific people or locations, Error 451 could empower those services to reveal that information to users as well. (This would also make it clear to customers when their ISP is intentionally throttling service.)