https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/16182961310

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has officially approved the HTTP 451 error code “an HTTP Status Code to Report Legal Obstacles”, reports NDTV. This error code should now ideally be displayed instead of “404 Page not found”, when blocked for legal reasons.

Responses using this status code should include the explanation in the response body about the details of the legal demand, the party making it, the applicable legislation or regulation, and which people it applies to. An example provided by the IETF:

HTTP/1.1 451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons

Link: <https://spqr.example.org/legislatione>; rel=”blocked-by”

Content-Type: text/html

<html>

<head><title>Unavailable For Legal Reasons</title></head>

<body>

<h1>Unavailable For Legal Reasons</h1>

<p>This request may not be serviced in the Roman Province of Judea due to the Lex Julia Majestatis, which disallows access to resources hosted on servers deemed to be operated by  the People’s Front of Judea.</p>

</body>

</html>

Note that the use of 451 status code does not imply if the content has been taken down, instead it just informs the user that they are restricted from accessing the content. By extension, the server imposing the restriction might not be the origin server, but ISPs and search engines which are legally asked to stop providing access to certain content. This means users could simply use a foreign proxy, a virtual private network or Tor to access the data (as is the case with most blocks).

It’s also worth noting that, despite the new status code, blocking parties might not use it, either because they dont have legal permission to reveal the block, or because they don’t want to. For example, the Cleanfeed Anti-Child-Abuse initiative in the UK, makes it necessary to declare 404 Not Found as error code for the block, for blocking child abuse images hosted outside the country. Similarly, when porn was banned in India, most users received little more than a blank page on the blocked websites with certain ISPs, when a 404 Not Found should have been easy to implement.

Interestingly, the idea of using 451 Unavailable for Legal Reasons was first suggested back in 2012 as a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, which presents a dystopian American society, where books are outlawed and burnt.

MediaNama’s Take: 403 Forbidden is too vague, and 404 Not Found is misleading; so as far as legally blocked content goes, displaying 451 Unavailable for Legal Reasons should help keeping the Internet more transparent. Given that its an internet standard, we hope the likes of Google and Facebook will soon adopt this error code to help users differentiate between what’s legally blocked and what’s generally unavailable (due to region etc.).

Image source: Flickr user Cory Doctorow