Error 451: The Government Has Censored This Content



There is currently no HTTP status code to indicate you can't access content because it's been prohibited by a government agency. Tim Bray, a Google engineer, has proposed the status code "451," in honor of the recently deceased author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, for use when an ISP is ordered by the government to deny access to a certain website. From Bray's proposal:

This document specifies an additional Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code for use when resource access is denied for legal reasons. This allows server operators to operate with greater transparency in circumstances where issues of law or public policy affect their operation.  This transparency may be beneficial both to these operators and to end users…

Responses using this status code SHOULD include an explanation, in the response body, of the details of the legal restriction; which legal authority is imposing it, and what class of resources it applies to.

Blogger Terence Eden first pointed out earlier this month that receiving a "403 FORBIDDEN" notice when attempting to access websites censored by the government is factually inaccurate, since neither the user nor the server are the origin of the error.

Ray Bradbury may not have agreed. From 2007 LA Weekly article:

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands…

[Bradbury] says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature. 

The renowned sci-fi writer was no fan of the Internet, either. From a 2009 New York Times article:

"The Internet is a big distraction," Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles…

"Yahoo called me eight weeks ago," he said, voice rising. "They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? 'To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.'

"It's distracting," he continued. "It's meaningless; it's not real. It's in the air somewhere."

Nevertheless, whether or not Ray Bradbury agreed, Fahrenheit 451 painted a world of government censorship we're probably closer to today than we were in 1954, and internet censorship is real censorship. 

Reason on Ray Bradbury as an enemy of the state

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  1. Fahrenheit 451 painted a world of government censorship we’re probably closer to today than we were in 1954

    ummm what the fuck are you talking about?

    1. Yeah, I don’t buy that argument either. How in gods name one can make that argument when entire libraries of information are available for free online.

      The opposite is far more true. We are light years ahead of where we were in terms of the free flow of information from say, 60 years ago.

      1. I dunno. Half worse, half better, I think. The government is far larger and far more intrusive. There was no library kill switch being contemplated in the hands of President Eisenhower, after all.

        1. True, but the size of the internet and the sheer volume of data housed in private servers across the world makes it pretty much impossible for there to be a true “kill switch”.

          1. What’s interesting and often missed about Fahrenheit 451 is that the censorship is desired by the majority of the people and not the result of imposed government will alone.

            1. Agreed. I can respect RB’s position and instead propose 984 as the code.

              1. That class of errors have to be 4xx.

      2. The opposite is far more true. We are light years ahead of where we were in terms of the free flow of information from say, 60 years ago.

        I was referring to the more obvious Comic Book Code, Movie code and various Red Scare censorship laws of the 1950s, but yours works as well.

  2. Bradbury’s comments are a good reminder that authorial intent should never be regarded as the final word in literary criticism, and can generally be ignored entirely.

    1. So long as the literary critic says “this is what these words mean to me” rather than “this is what these words mean”. It also shows that their really isn’t a right answer if everyone can take what they want from it. A good English teacher will grade based on how well someone’s argument is put forth rather than the conclusion they come to.

    2. I don’t entirely buy his explanation, anyway. I think his distinction is that the source of the tyranny was us. But whether it’s all of us or just a few of us, it’s ultimately the government doing the burning. What led to that in his story was all of us watching TV, surfing the web, and playing video games and not wanting to be offended by challenging ideas.

    3. Yup, exactly.

      He was an old man, cut him some slack for doing the old man shtick.

      He was himself singing a very different tune in the Coda to the book he wrote after he caught Ballantine censoring it without his permission.

      Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the fu?ture, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony.

      The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.

      1. Yeah, I first read Bradbury in the mid-60’s. Was it, as a side note, about the insipidness of TV and how it numbed the brain? Sure. But F451 was always even so much more about censorship and book-burning, whatever the cause. It was portrayed that way as your Bradbury quote shows. I wonder the context in which Bradbury uttered that comment.

  3. Half of writing history is hiding the truth.

    1. Only if your not an historian.

  4. “Yahoo called me eight weeks ago,” he said, voice rising. “They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.’

    Get off my lawn, internet!

    1. I love it. You’d expect him to be a technophile. Instead, he tells the Internet to fuck off.

  5. Silly. There were many more books banned in the 50s than there are today. Also, Bradbury’s opinion of the internet has probably more to do with his age than anything else. I mean, Skrillex called the other day and I just hung since I thought some modem from the 80s had dialed a wrong number……

    1. I dunno. While strictly speaking there is less censorship due to offensive material, there is more censorship thanks to IP laws.

      In the 1950s, the copyright laws were reasonable sensible. Books were copyrighted for a relatively short time and had to be renewed. But things eventually became public domain.

      Now, things basically will never go out of copyright.

      I mean, look at how many movies and books and such that Dracula inspired. None of that would have happened under current copyright law. Not until 1987 at least, would Dracula be in the public domain. And that’s under the current law – I wouldn’t be surprised to see that revised again so things never go out of copyright.

      1. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that revised again so things never go out of copyright.

        It will be if Disney has anything to say about it.

  6. Being a nation that honors the individual liberty of free speech, though, I’ll never see that popup – ammirite?

  7. Before we start burning effigies of King George, let’s remember who is making the suggestion we’re so excited about. Our Google engineer is employed by the world’s leading contender for Big Brother. The prospect of the web going all weak in the knees over a Google engineer charging the barricades for freedom is just too ironic for words.

    Google is no friend of liberty or libertarianism. And we must assume until satisfied otherwise that the only reason anyone associated with Google would wish to embarrass the government for its censorship power is because they’re jealous.

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