Image: Lego's 404 page
Did you know today is "404 Day?" Yeah me neither, but here we are, on the fourth day of the fourth month, talking about the fragility of the web. Dreamed up by the punny activists at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, 404 Day is a campaign to remind everyone that the internet, once popularly called "the information superhighway," is full of roadblocks and rotting infrastructure—especially in public schools and libraries where kids have access.
Part of the problem, as EFF and other internet freedom advocates see it, is that web filters meant to protect young people from "obscene" content, namely pornography, inadvertently block all sorts of harmless, important, educational, non-porn websites, too.
That includes honest keyword mixups that censor webpages about chicken “breasts” or “breast” cancer, even Shakespeare. It also targets more controversial filters that block content whenever authorities deem something "inappropriate"—things like non-mainstream religions like Wiccan or Native American spirituality, LGBTQ information, youth tobacco use, sexual health. This, says EFF, violates the First Amendment.
Web filters—most notably, the UK's recent "pornwall"—have been criticized for being overly aggressive, blocking legitimate sites, and threatening censorship creep. Also for being ineffective in the first place; one famously failed to block Pornhub, the third-biggest pornography website on the web.
But the problem's particularly acute in schools and libraries because of a little law called the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires public institutions to block obscene content before they can get the federal funding that keeps them afloat. Trouble is, automated keyword-blockers are notoriously bad at distinguishing between actual harmful content and webpages on topics that are merely controversial or happen to show someone naked.
So, EFF partnered with MIT's Center for Civic Media and the National Coalition Against Censorship to draw attention to the issue. Harvard University jumped on the campaign bandwagon too, suggesting people report any blacked out sites they encounter through the university's Herdict tool.
Herdict, a portmanteau of "herd" and "verdict," aggregates crowdsourced reports of blocked websites around the world—a more boots-on-the-ground, real-time version of the OpenNet Initiative that also tracks web censorship. According to its raw data feed, recent reports showed sites like discoveryeducation.com and stopbullying.gov were blocked in the US—case in point. As of this afternoon, the site tallied 221,966 inaccessible reports from 17,573 websites worldwide, the vast majority of which, unsurprisingly, came from China.
Where people are reporting blocked websites around the world. Image: Herdict
The Mapping Information Access Project is also monitoring the issue, acting like a sort of watchdog specifically for public institutions that take content blocking too far. "There are over 18,000 public school districts and over 9,000 public library systems in the United States," the website states. "Each of these institutions serves as a central node of information access for the communities they serve." Point being, the residents within that community ought to be able to access information, same as anyone else.
It's worth noting that internet filters and technical bugs aren't the only thing causing websites to 404. As the World Wide Web ages, link rot is becoming a serious problem. Already the internet is sprinkled with expired sites and dead links; a recent Harvard Law study looked back at Supreme Court opinions and found that 50 percent of URLs no longer linked to the originally cited information.
The digital infrastructure supporting the information economy is more broken than most of us realize. And while it's nice to see that dreaded 404 pages are now sometimes totally awesome, the error message is also indicative of a bigger problem facing the maturing web.