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2 Encoding and using metadata in URIs
2.1 Reliability of URI metadata
2.2 Guessing information from a URI
2.3 HTML Forms, and Documenting Metadata Assignment Policies
2.4 Authority use of URI metadata
2.5 URIs that are convenient for people to use
2.6 Changing metadata
2.7 Hiding metadata for security reasons
2.8 Avoid relying on metadata
Web-based software uses URIs to designate resources for retrieval or for other operations. The authority that creates a URI is responsible for assuring that it is associated with the intended resource, and thus that the appropriate data is manipulated or returned in response to operations that use the URI as a resource designator. Many URI schemes offer a flexible structure that can also be used to carry additional information, called metadata, about the resource. Such metadata might include the title of a document, the creation date of the resource, the MIME media type that is likely to be returned by an HTTP GET, a digital signature usable to verify the integrity or authorship of the resource content, or hints about URI assignment policies that would allow one to guess the URIs for related resources.
This finding addresses several questions regarding such metadata in URIs:
What information about a resource can or should be embedded in its URI?
What metadata can be reliably determined from a URI, and in what circumstances is it appropriate to rely on the correctness of such information?
In what circumstances is it appropriate to use information from a URI as a hint as to the nature of a resource or its representations?
The TAG has earlier published a finding Authoritative Metadata [AUTHMETA], which explains how to determine correct metadata in cases where conflicting information has been provided. This finding is concerned with just one possible means of determining resource metadata, i.e. from the URI itself.
This section uses simple examples to illustrate some issues that arise when encoding metadata in URIs, or when relying on information gleaned from such URIs. Good Practice Notes are provided to explain how to use the Web effectively, and Constraints are given where necessary for using the Web correctly. As these examples show, encoding or not encoding metadata in a URI or deciding whether to rely on such metadata is often a tradeoff, involving some benefits and some costs. In such cases, choices should be made that best meet the needs of particular resource providers and users.
Consider Martin, who is using a Web-based bug tracking system to investigate some software problems. He sees a bug report which says:
The bug tracking system is built to show examples just as they are entered into the system, so for http://example.org/bugdata/brokenfile.xml it returns a stream of (poorly formed) XML with Content-Type text/plain. That Content-Type should cause a properly configured browser to show Martin the erroneous text just as it was recorded:
<?xml version="1.0"> <PetList> <Dog>Rover</Dog> <Cat>Felix</Fish> </PetList>
Unfortunately, Martin uses a browser that incorrectly attempts to infer the format of the returned data from the URI suffix. Keying on the ".xml" in the URI, it launches an XML renderer for what should have been plain text. When Martin attempts to view the faulty file, he sees instead a browser error saying that the erroneous XML could not be displayed.
Constraint: Users of the Web and Web software MUST NOT attempt to draw unverifiable conclusions about a resource or its representations by inspection of its URI, except as licensed by relevant normative specifications or by URI assignment policies published by the relevant URI assignment authority.
In this example, there is no normative specification that provides for determination of a media-type from URI suffixes, and the assignment authority has provided no documentation to license an inference of media-type from the URI. Martin's browser is in error, because it relies on URI metadata that is not covered by normative specifications and has not been documented by the assignment authority. A correctly written browser would have shown the faulty XML as text, or might conceivably have shown a warning about the apparent mismatch between the type inferred from the URI and the returned Content-Type. (Martin's browser is also ignoring TAG finding "Authoritative Metadata" [AUTHMETA], which mandates that the Content-Type HTTP header take precedence even if type information had somehow been reliably encoded in the URI.)
There is certain metadata that Martin or his browser can reliably determine from the URI. For example, the URI conveys that the http scheme has been used, and that attempts to access the resource should be directed to the IP address returned from the DNS resolution of the string "example.org". These conclusions are licensed by normative specifications such as [URI] and [HTTP].
Note that the constraint refers to conclusions, which must be trustworthy, as opposed to guesses which need not be. Guessing information from URIs is something that people using the Web do quite often and for good reason, as discussed in the next example.
Bob is walking down a street, and he sees an advertisement on the side of a bus:
Bob goes home, and types the URI into his browser, which does indeed display for him a Chicago weather forecast. Bob then realizes that he'll be visiting Boston, and he guesses that a Boston weather page might be available at a similar URI:
He types that into his browser and reads the response that comes back.
Bob is using the original URI for more than its intended purpose, which is to identify the Chicago weather page. Instead, he's inferring from it information about the structure of a Web site that, he guesses, might use a uniform naming convention for the weather in lots of cities. So, when Bob tries the Boston URI, he has to be prepared for the possibility that his guess will prove wrong: Web architecture does not guarantee that the retrieved page, if there is one, has the weather for Boston, or indeed that it contains any weather report at all. Even if it does, there is no assurance that it is current weather, that it is intended for reliable use by consumers, etc. Bob has seen an advertisement listing just the Chicago URI, and that is the only one for which the URI authority has taken specific responsibility.
Still, the ability to explore the Web informally and experimentally is very valuable, and Web users act on guesses about URIs all the time. Many authorities facilitate such flexible use of the Web by assigning URIs in an orderly and predictable manner. Nonetheless, in the example above, Bob is responsible for determining whether the information returned is indeed what he needs.
Bob would not have had to guess the Boston weather URI if the authority had documented its URI assignment policy. Assignment authorities have no obligation to provide such documentation, but it can be a useful way of advertising in bulk the URIs for a collection of related resources. For example, the advertisement might have read:
Reading that advertisement, Bob is entitled to assume that any weather report retrieved from such a URI is both trustworthy and current.
HTML forms [HTMLForms] and now XForms [XFORMS] each provide a means by which a authority can assert its support for a class of parameterized URIs, while simultaneously programming Web clients to prompt for the necessary parameters. For example, a Web site might offer a city lookup page containing the following HTML form fragment:
<FORM ACTION="http://example.org/cityweather" METHOD="GET"> For what city would you like a weather report: <INPUT TYPE="TEXT" NAME="city">? <INPUT TYPE="SUBMIT" VALUE="Get the weather"> </FORM>
A browser receiving this form, or Bob if he views the source of the form, is assured that the assigning authority is supporting an entire class of URIs of the form:
The same HTML Form is also a computer program, executable by the browser, that prompts for and retrieves representations for all such URIs, and the English text in the form assures Bob that these are indeed for weather reports. Bob is not guessing the encoding of the URI or the nature of the resources referenced — he is acting on authoritative information provided by the assigner of the URIs. He can assume not just that he will get weather reports for certain cities, but that no URIs in the class correspond to anything other than weather reports (though some may correspond to no resource at all). Bob could, with this assurance, write his own software to construct and use such URIs to retrieve weather reports. Of course, the typical Web user would neither directly inspect the URIs nor write software to build them, but would instead type in city names and push the handy "Get the weather" button on his or her browser screen.
In the examples above, resource metadata (I.e. the city associated with each resource) was encoded into URIs primarily for the benefit of users such as Bob, or to facilitate use of the HTML Forms or XForms acting on those users' behalf.
Often, metadata is encoded into a URI not primarily for the benefit of users, but to facilitate management of the resources themselves. For example, assume that the administrators at example.org have established a policy of assigning URIs based on the media types of representations: all GIF images are named with URIs ending in ".gif", and all JPEG images are named with URIs ending in ".jpeg", and so on. Although 2.1 Reliability of URI metadata warned that users of a resource cannot rely on undocumented naming conventions to determine media types and other information about a resource, the owner of a resource controls such naming and can depend on it. Example.org may therefore rely on their policy in an Apache Web Server .htaccess file, which causes the correct media type to be served automatically for each resource:
<Files ~ ".*\.gif"> ForceType 'image/gif' </Files> <Files ~ ".*\.jpg"> ForceType 'image/jpeg' </Files>
Even if it does not document this policy publicly, example.org's own Web servers can safely depend on it.
In addition to filename-based conventions, authorities may choose to base URIs on database keys, customer identifiers, or other information that makes it easy to associate a URI with information pertinent to the corresponding resource. Such encodings are both useful and common on the Web, but there can also be drawbacks to including such information in URIs. Some of those problems are discussed in the three sections immediately below.
URIs optimized for use by the assignment authority may sometimes be inconvenient for resource users. Consider Mary who is walking down the street, and who sees the same weather advertisement as Bob:
Like Bob, Mary is pleased to learn about a valuable Web site, and she finds that the URI itself is quite easy to both to remember and to type into her browser. This is because, in addition to the required scheme and authority components, the URI is based on the word weather and the city name Chicago, both of which fit her expectations for this resource.
The next day, Mary sees another advertisement reading:
Mary is annoyed, because the URI is both difficult to remember and hard to transcribe accurately. She guesses that the authority has assigned this URI for its own convenience (see 2.4 Authority use of URI metadata) rather than for hers. Although Web architecture does not require that URIs be easy to understand or suggestive of the resource named, it's handy if those intended for direct use by people are.
Note that the second URI might be based on a database key that facilitates efficient access to the weather data at the server (see 2.4 Authority use of URI metadata); such a URI might have been a good choice if it were intended only for use in HTML hyperlinks, rather than in an advertisement on the side of a bus.
URIs should generally not encode metadata that will change, regardless of whether the encoding policy is established to benefit URI assignment authorities, resource users, or both. Consider a web site that organizes document URIs according to the documents' lead author or editor. Thus, the documents:
are named for their editor, Bob Smith. Bob retires, and Mary Jones takes over as editor for document1. If the URI is changed to encode her name, then existing links break, but if the URI is not changed, the naming policy is violated. By encoding into the URI metadata that will change, the authority has put itself in a difficult position.
Indeed, RDF statements about the resource, headers returned with representations (e.g. Content-Type) or metadata embedded in the representations themselves (e.g. HTML <META> tags) are all better alternatives for conveying such volatile metadata about the resource.
A bank establishes a URI assignment policy in which account numbers are encoded directly in the URI. For example, the URI http://example.org/customeraccounts/456123 accesses information for account number 456123. A malicious worker at an Internet Service Provider notices these URIs in his traffic logs, and determines the bank account numbers for his Internet customers. Furthermore, if access controls are not properly in place, he might be able to guess the URIs for other accounts, and to attempt to access them.
There is almost always a cost to peeking into a URI to get metadata. Even when Web architecture and the guidelines above say that you may do so, you should be reluctant, especially when constructing general purpose Web software. Software that peeks is less likely to work with arbitrary resources than software that doesn't. For example, software that works only with URIs in the http scheme is less general than software that works for arbitrary URIs. Software that attempts to act on "file extension" suffixes, such as .jpeg, is likely to be doing so in violation of Web Architecture, and in any case such software won't work with URIs that don't have the suffix. Even at the assignment authority, which has definitive knowledge of the metadata encoded in its URIs, software that's dependent on such encodings will only be usable for resources that obey the convention.
The principle conclusions of this finding are:
It is legitimate for assignment authorities to encode static identifying properties of a resource, e.g. author, version, or creation date, within the URIs they assign. This may contribute to the unique assignment of URIs. It may also contribute to the use of efficient mechanisms for dereferencing resources within origin servers e.g. use of database keys within URIs.
Assignment authorities may publish specifications detailing the structure and semantics of the URIs they assign. Other users of those URIs may use such specifications to infer information about resources identified by URI assigned by that authority.
The ability to explore and experiment is important to Web users. Users therefore benefit from the ability to infer either the nature of the named resource, or the likely identity of other resources, from inspection of a URI. Such inferences are reliable only when supported by normative specifications or by documentation from the assignment authorities. In other cases, users are responsible for the consequences of any incorrect inferences.
People and software using URIs assigned outside of their own authority should make as few inferences as possible about a resource based on its identity. The more dependencies a piece of software has on particular constraints and inferences, the more fragile it becomes to change and the lower its generic utility.