f451You know those numbered web errors that pop up every so often when you can’t find a page you want? The best-known is the 404 “Page not found” error, which some sites have made clever creative uses of. These codes are web standards, and different numbers denote different reasons.

Well, today a new numeric code was approved: when a user tries to load a page that has been blocked for legal reasons (i.e. censorship), they will get an HTTP 451 error page. The proposal for the code has been under consideration for over two years now, but it was finally approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The code is, of course, named in homage to the late Ray Bradbury’s famous book, Fahrenheit 451, about teams of firemen who destroyed literature. That it is so named is a rather great irony, as late in life Bradbury himself held that the novel was actually not about censorship; it was about the displacement of books by new media such as television. (Well, he was certainly free to say that if he wanted, but he couldn’t change the fact that many people saw anti-censorship messages in it.)

Also faintly ironic is the use of anything associated with Bradbury for a new-media-related purpose. Bradbury was famously distrustful of new technology (just look at what he felt Fahrenheit 451 was really about!) and even refused to permit his books to be released in e-book format until just a few months before his death. By the time he died in 2012, the changing world had simply left him behind.

But in the end, Bradbury’s approval really isn’t necessary for people to employ “451” as a clever nod to him while at the same time explicitly acknowledging censorship—something current HTTP error codes haven’t been able to do. And if it amuses me to imagine Bradbury grumbling, “But that’s not what the book was about!” every time “451” pops up to tell someone a web site has been censored, well, that’s my business.


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