Forbidden

We have seen great discussions on how to design error pages on websites. Many creative examples wait to be explored as an inspiration of what's possible. Some of them are thought-provoking; others are strange. Some explore the limits between funny and appropriate. Others fill our hearts with the openness of a beautiful, never-ending landscape. Sometimes, they simply tell us to come back later, without giving any explanation of what happened, what the cause for the error might have been or what the user could possibly do. Some error pages are more heavy/beautiful than regular pages of the same site as if users will spend the majority of their time there. Yet, even fewer explain as fast as possible how the broken transition from one page to another can be fixed.

While the "not found" error messages are the most common, this doesn't mean that others aren't important too. Another error that can be seen much less frequently is the "forbidden" page, which is rarely discussed. We have all seen at one time or another how access to the content is restricted—by site owners, governments, Internet providers and others. Messages like "This content isn't available to your country yet" or "We are sorry for the inconvenience" or "403 Forbidden" are subtle ways to express an attitude towards a concrete human being in a way that is different from other error messages. Here we don't have technical malfunction of any kind, but a special treatment of someone. Not only can this be demoralizing, but it can cause a defendant response almost on a subconscious level. A user may ask himself: "If they don't respect me, why should I?" What's worse is when a top-level manager writes a signed explanation of why the content isn't available right now. It's probably not a good idea to subscribe under what will appear as incompetent.

The different ways in which the "forbidden" page is presented can lead to different impressions. For instance, just showing "403 Forbidden" with nothing else on the page will be perceived as rude or dismissive. When the access to a single YouTube video is disallowed, this doesn't prevent a user from seeing other recommendations for similar content. Although not all of the content will be available, the user will still feel empowered to explore the site, so the negative emotional effect on him will be milder. Disabling all options just because a single resource needs to remain private rarely contributes to a good user experience.

It's a good idea to point out why a specific content is disallowed. It may be due to copyright, exceeded traffic limit or something else. This way, the user doesn't have to guess what's wrong, which can give a hint how to change behavior.

A clear indication of a limited access to a resource needs to be provided upfront, before the user follows a link. Saying things after the fact doesn't really prevent the appearance of the message.

The tone of the voice on such pages is extremely important. The formulation of the explanation why access is restricted can determine how the site owner is perceived. If he decides to limit access to a resource, it is still better to be tolerant to the user rather than to appear cold and distant. Taking precautions against brute force attacks is something he needs to keep in mind.

We can assume that almost everything exists in one form or another on the web, especially when over time it has the tendency to approximate knowledge from outside sources. We see this every day through the people who blog about the things they find interesting in real life. We share, explain and discuss, so in a sense, nothing is truly forbidden; the chance that it exists in another form at another place shouldn't be underestimated. Sometimes we arrive at the same place in different ways, which is why full protection rarely works. It's just our pointers that are different.

Protecting resources is a sign of fear and insecurity. People, who constantly innovate aren't afraid whether someone would come and steal their work. They are happy that their work will find different incarnations and touch new people/places that weren't possible to reach before. "Forbidden" is a word they rarely use in a spoken language. They find that the resource isn't as important as the unique movement that led to its creation. Letting go of a resource that is likely to get old after a couple of months is a way to prevent attachment to it that will be limiting their mind.

In times when many educational institutions are making their lectures accessible to thousands of students online, it seems almost irrational to keep a "403 Forbidden" on lecture materials, yet this is still common. A couple of years ago this worked well, but even then it wasn't right, because it didn't help anyone. If we advance through a cycle of mutual influence, it doesn't make sense to try to break it. We need a much more open thinking if we want to change our society. This includes to acknowledge the fact that what someone experiences once, may be propagated many times, in unforeseen ways, across the network later. A single action that is limiting the capabilities of a person is likely to limit the society tenfold, simply through the invisible limitations this person will impose on others. Even the smallest acts can have a profound impact. Acting with an open mind goes hand in hand with the patience that our ideas will find approval and application. Otherwise, we may start to believe that radical openness has zero ROI, which will bring us back to our previous idea of keeping all resources under control. Open access has still a long way to go until the full inclusion of wider circles of people to more effectively participate in the collective welfare.

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