Status Code 451: An Internet Governance Standard to Expose Censorship

By Corinne Cath and Daniel O’Maley

Sometimes a simple paragraph of computer code can help media developers fight online censorship. And this is important because such censorship is increasingly impeding the work of the media development community across the world. For many people from the media sector, the highly technical world of Internet governance can often feel quite distant from their mission of providing news and information to people.  Yet, the standards and protocols being built at Internet governance bodies, when crafted properly, can go a long way in improving transparency and freedom of expression online. This is certainly the case of Status Code 451, which was created in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to help expose online censorship – something that benefits all media outlets.

The IETF is one of the organizations that creates Internet protocols and standards—the basic traffic rules of the Internet which define how information travels across the network, and who is able to connect to whom and to what content. The organization is unique in that anyone who shows up to its three yearly meetings or joins the IETF working group mailing lists can participate in terms of proposing or developing Internet standards. That being said, the IETF community primarily consists of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers. Right now, there is virtually no representation from the media sector. Given the power these protocols have in shaping information flows, this needs to change.

There are several Internet status codes that many of us have already run across at some point or another. Practically every Internet user has run into the “404 Not Found” status code on their web browser when trying, and failing, to access a particular website. This code indicates that the server is unable to locate the website’s URL—it’s unique, numeric identification number. This error indicates that perhaps the website no longer exists. A similar “403 Forbidden” status code indicates that while the server is able to locate the site, the user does not have sufficient permission to access it. While these codes can often cause frustration, they serve a much-needed role of informing web users as to why they are unable to access content.

As censorship of the Internet is becoming more commonplace, a number of people realized that there was a need for a new status that indicates when something is not available for legal reasons, such as when a web page has been censored by a government. In 2013, Canadian software developer Tim Bray submitted a formal proposal for the creation of such an error code. In response an IETF working group created the “451 Unavailable for Legal Reasons” status code. It was officially published as a global standard in February 2016.  The number 451 is a reference to Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, in which books are outlawed. Status code 451 creates greater transparency in circumstances where legal issues affect the availability of content. While this does not necessarily address all forms of Internet censorship, it does demonstrate how policies enacted by Internet governance bodies can improve transparency online.

Is Status Code 451 a definitive solution to the growing problem of censorship online? Of course it isn’t. It cannot prevent governments and corporations from censoring content. And, it does not provide a method to detect censorship across the board, as it requires entities that are filtering content to voluntarily inject the status code.  This means that it’s use will most likely be limited to legal content removal, like in cases of copyright infringement. However, it does provide users with a better understanding of the limits that are being placed on the content they can access and why; it helps to expose forms of censorship. And, since it was developed at the IETF it has the potential to become a global standard.

The example of Status Code 451 should serve as a call for the media sector to become more engaged in Internet standards debates. Even just a little more participation in thinking about these types of protocols could make a significant impact towards improving the flow of news and information online. If the intersection of media development and Internet governance interests you, please check out CIMA and Article 19’s report on the topic—Media Development in the Digital Age: Five Ways to Engage in Internet Governance. It offers and overview of the five most relevant Internet governance bodies for media development, and offers ideas about how the media sector can get involved. Media organizations can no longer sit on the sidelines as Internet standards are created—they need to join the debate.

Corinne Cath  works for ARTICLE 19’s Team Digital.

Daniel O’Maley is the Associate Editor at the Center for International Media Assistance. 

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