Tim Berners-Lee

Date: December 19, 1996

Status: personal view. Editing status: Italic text is rough. Reques complete edit and possibly massaging, but content is basically there. Words such as "axiom" and "theorem" are used with gay abandon and the reverse of rigour here..

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Universal Resource Identifiers -- Axioms of Web Architecture

Universal Resource Identifiers

The operation of the World Wide Web, and its interoperability between platforms of differing hardware and software manufacturers, depend on the specifications of protocols such as HTTP, data formats such as HTML, and other syntaxes such as the URL or, more generally, URI specifications. Behind these specifications lie some important rules of behavior which determine the foundation of the properties of the Web. These are rules and principles upon which new designs of programs and the behavior of people must rely. And it is that reliance which makes the Web both an information space which works now, and the foundation for future applications, protocols, and extensions. The more essential of these I refer to loosely as axioms, and the most basic of these have to do with URI.

The aim of thes article is to summarize in one place the axioms of Web architecture: those invariant aspects of Web design which are implied or stated in various specifications or in some cases simply part of the folk law of how the Web ought to be used. Especially for these latter cases, this article is designed to tie together the Web community in a common understanding of how we can progress, extend, and evolve the Web protocols. Terms such as "axiom", and "theorem" are used with gay abandon rather than precision as this not a mathematical treatise.

Universal Resource Identifiers

The Web is a universal information space. It is a space in the sense that things in it have an address. The "addresses", "names", or as we call them here identifiers, are the subject of this article.  They are called Universal Resource Identifiers (URIs).

An information object is "on the web" if it has a URI.  Objects which have URIs are sometimes known as "First Class Objects" (FCOs).  The Web works best when any information object of value and identity is a first class object.  If something does not have a URI, you can't refer to it, and the power of the Web is the less for that.

By Universal I mean that the web is declared to be able to contain in principle every bit of information accessible by networks. It was designed to be able to include existing information systems such as FTP, and to be able simply in the future to be extendable to include any new information system.

The URI schemes identify things various different types of information object, wich play different roles in the protocols. Some identify services, connection end points, and so on, but a fundamental underlying architectural notion is of information objects - otherwise known as generic documents. These can be represented by strings of bits. An information object conveys something - it may be art, poetry, sensor values or mathematical equations.

The Semantic Web allows an information objects to give information about anything - real objects, abstract concepts. In this case, by combining the identifier of a document with the identifier, within that document, of something it describes, one forms an idenifier for anything. This is done with "#" and fragment identifiers, discussed later.

Axiom 0: Universality 1

Any resource anywhere can be given a URI

Axiom 0a: Universality 2

Any resource of significance should be given a URI.

(What sorts of things can be resources? A very wide variety. The URI concept istelf puts no limits on this. However, URIs are divided into schemes, such as http: and telenet:, and the specification of each scheme determines what sort of things can be resources in that scheme. Schemes are discussed later.)

This means that no information which has any significance and persistence should be made available in a way that one cannot refer to it with a URI.

In fact, we take care before extending the URIs to include any old system, because URIs of any form must also be understood anywhere in the world.

When you specify a URI, a Universal Resource Identifier, (often people use the more restricted term "URL", Uniform Resource Locator), first axiom is:

Axiom 1: Global scope

It doesn't matter to whom or where you specify that URI, it will have the same meaning.

So, this means that there is no scope within which a URI must be placed for it to hold. All you need say is that something is "on the Web" and that is enough. Anyone can follow that hypertext link, anyone can look up that URI. Now, the sorts of URI that we find typically start "http:" indicating that this URI points into a space of objects accessed using the hypertext transfer protocol. But there are many other sorts of URI, and a key to the Universality is that this universal space of identifiers whether you call them names addresses or locators, is universal through the range of pre-existing protocols such as SMTP, and NNTP, through protocols designed for the Web specifically (HTTP) through, in principal, to new protocols yet to be invented. So, there is a theorem, if you like, of URIs that:

Any new space of identifiers or address space can be represented as a subset of URI space.

You can prove this easily because there is no limit to the length of a URI and any new name system or address system can be incorporated simply by encoding the value of names or addresses into an acceptable, printable string and prefacing that string with a standard prefix for that new scheme. So, you could replace http:, for example with ISBN: or X500: depending on the new scheme.

There is a second axiom of URIs which is difficult to characterize exactly but accepted in some form by everyone who uses the Web in some form and that is that:

Axiom 2a: sameness

a URI will repeatably refer to "the same" thing

The same identifier string is expected from one day to the next to point to, in some sense, the same object. That is a very important axiom, and it leaves open the "in some sense" behind which is a very complicated discussion of the concept of identity. When are two things "in some sense" the same.

Axiom 2b: identity

of URIs clears up the vagueness of 2a and is that

the significance of identity for a given URI is determined by the person who owns the URI, who first determined what it points to.

We do not discuss in detail here the definition of owner because the mechanism by which a person or agent comes to get or create or be allocated a new URI varies from scheme to scheme. But in every scheme in practice there is a way of making a new URI. In many schemes, the scheme itself implies or requires some properties of identity. The scheme, if you like, imposes constraints within which the owner of a URI is free to define identity.

The implication here is that we will need protocols for exchanging any guarantees of the properties of given URIs: they are not simply laid down in the specification of the web. This is in tune with a general philosophical principle of design (after Bob Scheifler and others):

The technology should define mechanisms wherever possible without defining policy.

because we recognize here that many properties of URIs are social rather than technical in origin.

Therefore, you will find pointers in hypertext which point to documents which never change but you will also find pointers to documents which change with time. You will find pointers to documents which are available in more than one format. You will find pointers to documents which look different depending on who is asking for them. There are ways to describe in a machine or human readable way exactly what sort of repeatability you would expect from a URI, but the architecture of the Web is that that is for something for the owner of the URI to determine.

Identity abuse

All the same, a word of caution is appropriate about the indiscriminate or deliberately misleading abuse of the identity of the object refered to by a URI. A web server is often in a position to know a lot of context about a request. This can include for example, the person who is asking, the document they were reading last from which they followed the link.  It is possible to use this information to dramatically change the content of the document refered to.  This undermines the concept of identity and of reference in general.  To do that without making it clear is misleading both to anyone who quotes the URI of a page or who follows the link.

Unless it is clearly indicated on the page (or using a future protocol) , to return differing information for the same URI must be considered a form of deception.  It also of course messes up caches. Note the HTTP 1.1 "Vary" header allows this indication to be passed.

When is a URI "the same URI"?

Two URIs are the same if (and only if) they are the same character for character.

Two URIs which are different may in fact be equivalent, in that they may refer to the same thing, and give the same result in all operations. In some cases any agent looking at two URIs can deduce, from knowledge of the various web standards, that they must be equivalent, in that they must refer to the same thing. For example, HTTP URIs contain domain names, and the Domain Name System is case-insensitive. Therefore, while it is normal practice to use lower case for domain names, any agent which comes across two URIs which differ only in the case of the domain name can conclude that they must refer to the same thing. In another case, a client agent may use out-of-band information about a web site to know that its URI paths are case-invariant, or that URIs ending in "/" and "/index.html" are equivalent. It is bad engineering practice to make new protocols require such processing.

There are a long series of such algorithms. Which ones an agent can apply depends on what information it has to hand, and depend on what knowledge of which protocols has been programmed into it. New schemes may be defined in the future, for which different forms of canonicalization can be done. There is, therefore, no definitive canonicalization algorithm for URIs. Generic URI handling code should handle URIs as case-sensitive character strings. It is not recommended that, for example, encryption and signature algorithms attempt to canonicalize URIs before signature, because of the arbitrariness of any attempt to define a canonicalization algorithm.

The only canonicalization one could insist upon would be that defined by the algorithms in the URI specifications. This incldues the generation of an absolute URI from and the hex-encoding or decoding of all non-reserved characters.

URIs and the Test of Independent Invention

The concept of a web as a "space" is based on these axioms of design. As a result, the web behaves to a certain extent as a system with state, and an important part of the work of the system is the distribution of visible state rather than the execution of invisible remote operations.

Axiom 3: non unique

URI space does not have to be the only universal space

The assertion that the space of URIs is a universal space sometimes encounters opposition from those who feel there should not be one universal space. These people need not oppose the concept because it is not of a single universal space: Indeed, the fact that URIs form universal space does not prevent anyone else from forming their own universal space, which of course by definition would be able to envelop within it as a subset the universal URI space. Therefore the web meets the "independent design" test, that if a similar system had been concurrently and independently invented elsewhere, in such a way that the arbitrary design decisions were made differently, when they met later, the two systems could be made to interoperate.

There may be in the world many universal spaces, and there need not be any particular quarrel about one particular one having a special status. (Of course, having very many may not be very useful, and in the World Wide Web, the URI space plays a special role by being the universal space chosen in that design.)

For example, it would be possible to map all international telephone numbers into URI space very easily, by inventing a new URI "phone:" after which was the phone number. It would in fact also conversely be possible to map URIs into international phone numbers by allocating a special phone number not used by anyone else, perhaps a special country code for URI space, and then converting all URIs into a decimal representation. In that case, both URIs and phone numbers would be universal spaces. Identifiers in one space would be consisting only of numbers, and in the other of alphanumeric characters. One would be shorter than the other, but there is no reason why, in principle, the two could not co-exist, allowing you to dial any Web object from a telephone as a telephone number, and point to any phone from a hypertext document.

So, on this last axiom rests not specifically the operation of the web, but its acceptance as a non-domineering technology, and therefore our trust in its future evolvability.

Identity, State and GET

From the fact that the thing referenced by the URI is in some sense repeatably the same suggests that in a large number of cases the result of de-referencing the URI will be exactly the same, especially during a short period of time. This leads to the possibility of caching information. It leads to the whole concept of the Web as an information space rather than a computing program. It is a very fundamental concept. Not only do the concepts of navigation around the space remembering "places" in the Web and other humanly visible aspects of the nature of the Web depend on it, but also many technical architectural properties depend on it. For example, the implication is that the GET operation in HTTP is an operation which is expected to repeatably return the same result. As a result of that, anyone may know that under certain circumstances that they may instead of repeating an HTTP operation, use the result of a previous operation. The operation is "idempotent". This, in turn, allows software to use previously fetched copies of documents and it requires that the HTTP GET operation should have no side effects. For example, GET should never be used to initiate another operation which will change state. In general (see the HTTP 1.1 spec) the notion of side-effects is that of any significant communication between the parties. A user can never be held accountable to anything as a result of doing a GET. The server may for example log the number of requests, but the client user cannot be held responsible for that: it does not constitute communication between the two parties.

It is wrong to represent the user doing a GET as committing to something or putting themselves on a mailing list, doing any operation which effects the state of the Web or the state of the users relationship with the information provider or the server. To ignore this rule can be to introduce a serious security problem in a website.

So, from this principal, we have a principal of the http protocol that :


In HTTP, GET must not have side effects.

The introduction of any other method apart from GET which has no side effects is also incorrect, because the results of such an operation effectively form a separate address space, which violates the universality. A pragmatic symptom would be that hypertext links would have to contain the method as well as the URI in order to able to address the new space, which people would soon want to do.


In HTTP, anything which does not have side-effects should use GET

This means that for people implementing systems in which users request information and execute operations using forms, when the form simply requests information it must result in a GET operation. Indeed this is very much to be favored over a post operation because the result of a GET operation has a URI and may be leaked to, for example, may be put into a bookmark. This violates the axiom of universality above.

However, when the result of a form is to execute an operation, which changes the Web or a relationship of a user to anyone else, then the GET operation may not be used and POST or other method either through HTTP or mail must be used. Only by sticking to this rule can such systems interoperate with caches and other agents which exploit the repeatability of HTTP GET of URI dereferencing in the future.

The axiom above about URIs pointing in principle to conceptually the same thing has a corollary which says that URIs do not always have to point to exactly the same set of bits. This means that URIs can be "generic". See the discussion of generic URIs.

The Opacity Axiom

The concept of an identifier referring to a resource is very fundamental in the World Wide Web. Identifiers will refer to resources all different sorts. Any addressable thing will have an identifier. There are mechanisms we have just discussed for extending the spaces of identifiers into name spaces which have different properties. Different spaces may address different sorts of objects, and the relationship between the identifier and the object, such as the uniqueness of the object and the concept of identity, may vary. A very important axiom of the Web is that in general:

Axiom: Opacity of URIs

The only thing you can use an identifier for is to refer to an object. When you are not dereferencing, you should not look at the contents of the URI string to gain other information.

For the bulk of Web use URIs are passed around without anyone looking at their internal contents, the content of the string itself. This is known as the opacity. Software should be made to treat URIs as generally as possible, to allow the most reuse of existing or future schemes.

For example, within an HTTP identifier, even when access is made to the object, the client machine looks at the first part of the identifier to determine which server machine to talk to and from then on the rest of the string is defined to be opaque to the client. That is the client does not look inside it, it can not deduce an information from the characters in that identifier. It has been very tempting from time to time for people to write software in which a client will look at a string such as ".html" on the end of an identifier, and come to a conclusion that it might be hypertext markup file when dereferenced. But these thoughts of breaking of the rule could lead to a broken architecture in which the generality of URIs is something one can no longer depend on.

Opacity of the URIs opens the door to new URI schemes, it opens the door to excitingly different interpretations of HTTP URI spaces. For example, servers can use the opaque string to carry all kinds of parameters to spaces with new topologies.

As a result of this axiom the many parts of metadata, that information about the object that a client might be tempted to infer from the actual sting value of the URI but can't, have to be made available through the HTTP protocol. That is the purpose of some of the headers of the HTTP protocol and is discussed in the next section.

Another example of a reason for keeping the URI opaque is that other address spaces for example within an HTTP servers address space the rest of the URI can be used as a coded representation of a name in some local space. Typically, when that is done, when the server serves as a gateway into an existing space, then it is extremely useful to be able to use the string in any way consistent with the URI syntax rules to represent coded names from the other space. The server can encode, within the URI, complex locations in some legacy system which is being mapped into an information space for the first time. So, for example, names which come from names in some sort of a database might by coincidence end up with .html with no implication that there is a hypertext markup language document involved, just that the particular encoding used happened to produce that string of bits.

Query strings

An important case is the treatment of the question mark in HTML forms. There is a convention that infformation returned from HTML forms is returned by encoding it and appending it to the URI. The question mark within the URI is used to separate the basic URI from parameters which are appended to it to perform an operation. A typical use is for a search, and the string following the question mark is often known as a query string.

When a query string and fragment identifier are used, the function evaluated on dereferencing a URL

         select(get( "foo", "query("bar","baz")), "frag") 


Query strings are clearly not opaque to the client. However, they should be opaque to (for example) proxies.

Apart from searches, other operations are performed, for example by those filling out HTML forms which are set up to have an HTTP "GET" action. This is done in situations in which the results of that operation of the URI are quasi-static. In other words, the resource referred to by the complete URI (including the query mark and the query string after it) follows the axiom of slow change above: the result of performing the operation is repeatable in some fashion.

It is tempting and often done to assume that the result of such an operation will be more transient than that of a URI with less or without a query string. To make this assumption breaks the Opacity rule in general. Not only that, but this is in many cases a completely wrong assumption. For example, the query string is sometimes used to indicate parameters such as a personalized sub-space which is being browsed. Unfortunately, because the Opacity rule has been broken by clients and caches which don't cache documents whose URIs contain question marks, the question mark is sometimes been deliberately inserted in order to defeat caches. This creeping use of non-standard and axiom breaking conventions could clearly be damaging to other systems which use the question mark for other reasons for perfectly cacheable documents.

Hierarchies and Relative URIs

While discussing the universality of Universal Resource Identifiers, it is as well to discuss the place of the Universal Syntax as this has been the source of some misunderstanding as to the intent and advantages behind this. The URI Syntax, now famous through its HTTP form uses slashes to indicate a hierarchical structured name or address. Apart from that, the strings between the slashes are opaque. There is nothing to say that the string between a double slash and a slash must be in all URI schemes a fully qualified domain name; there is nothing to relate strings between single slashes to parts of a unix file name. The reason that the slashes have been instituted as common universal syntax for a hierarchical boundary is that hierarchical schemes are common and that relative naming within a hierarchical space has many advantages.

Relative naming allows small groups of documents which are located close within a tree to refer to each other without being aware of their absolute position within any absolute tree. It turns out that for scalability of the creation of material on the Web, this is essential. This has been found both for file names in most modern operating systems and for HTTP URLs, and one can also reasonably assume that it will be true for any other hierarchical scheme. Therefore, it is important that the generic concept of a hierarchical scheme is kept separate for future use from specific schemes which involve possibly to be outdated forms such as fully qualified domain names.

An example in using relative URIs

Let us take, for example, the exercise of mapping an international telephone number onto the URL. International telephone numbers are hierarchical. For example, the meaning of and the format of a telephone number depends on the country, but there is a universal format for a telephone number in the world which can be understood everywhere. This format is, in fact, a plus sign indicating that one starts at the top of the hierarchy: that this is an absolute international telephone number. It is followed by the country code, the area code (if any) and the telephone number. Mapping this onto the URL syntax, the double slash would be used to indicate that one is starting from the top of the tree, so the number

+1 (617) 253-5708

would be written with a double slash instead of the plus and then slashes at the other hierarchical boundaries.:


(The dash here is used for decoration. In practice people like to break telephone numbers up in various ways for readability, even though the punctuation has no hierarchical significance.) Of course, there could be other mappings used, but let us look at how this particular mapping using the slashes would be used in relative URIs. Suppose we are in a context in which that telephone number is the default. Suppose, for example we have declared that that number is the absolute base telephone number ("base URL") within a conversation: typically, we are talking to somebody who lives in the same area code.

Using the relative URL pausing rules, we can refer to another local telephone number simple as, for example, 861-5000 with no punctuation. This is just what we do in practice. We can refer to a telephone number within the same country as /800/123-4567. Although these are not quite the conventions currently used for telephone numbers, they are just as compact as the various conventions of putting brackets around the area code, and would probably be parsed correctly by a human.

To indicate an international number we simply start with a double slash. For example,


Now, suppose instead we had used another system. We had just decided that for consistency, we would simply use the plus sign and for example, parenthesis around an area code. This would mean that whereas you can use the conventions of simply omitting the area code for the local telephone number, and you could use a plus sign to indicate an international telephone number. If you put phone: in front of it, to have it correctly parsed by a URL parser, you would always have to use the full international form. Now, there may be some who would prefer to always see the full international form in telephone numbers because telephone numbers are of fairly limited length. However, the principle of relative names or local telephone numbers being useful is established beyond question. There is also perhaps as much public use of the double slash in URIs as there is of the plus sign in international telephone numbers. (Within the United States of America there seem to be relatively few people who understand the significance of the plus sign or for that matter know what their country code is!).

So, in general when looking at new naming schemes which may have a hierarchical nature we should regard the slash and the double slash as common syntax. It may be that we can transition to a shorter form in which, for example, a double slash is assumed after the colon in a fully qualified URL in order to address the worry that the URL syntax is clumsy when you include the scheme name prefix.


Myth: "The // must only be used to introduce a fully qualified domain name."

Grandfathering hierarchies: generalizing the scheme

It is worth noting that the syntax with the double slash can in fact be extended for use with a triple slash if one wanted to be able to start at any level in a much more complicated hierarchical structure. For example, suppose international telephone numbers were to be extended to cover a planetary code in the future. Then the planetary code could be attached to the front of the international code. The triple slash could introduce the interplanetary code, and the double slash would introduce the international code. Indeed, this is how the double slash came to be: when hierarchical naming schemes such as those in unix file systems was extended to a networks file system on the Apollo domain the extra slash was introduced. Similarly, Microsoft NT networking now uses double backslash in exactly the same way.

RFC1630 is an information RFC I wrote about URIs in WWW because getting consensus on the philosophy of all this in open forum ws going to take a long time at best. It contains an algorithm for parsing relative URIs which in fact would pause a relative URI in an environment with any arbitrary number of consecutive slashes. (The only problem with this scheme is, like others which use the same delimiter for beginning and ending strings or that one cannot represent an empty string. This is already a problem with the file syntax when an empty string is used for the host name resulting in three consecutive slashes.)

To quote RFC1630:

If the scheme parts are different, the whole absolute URI must be given. Otherwise, the scheme is omitted, and:

If the partial URI starts with a non-zero number of consecutive slashes, then everything from the context URI up to (but not including) the first occurrence of exactly the same number of consecutive slashes which has no greater number of consecutive slashes anywhere to the right of it is taken to be the same and so prepended to the partial URL to form the full URL. Otherwise:

The last part of the path of the context URI (anything following the rightmost slash) is removed, and the given partial URI appended in its place, and then:

Within the result, all occurrences of "xxx/../" or "/." are recursively removed, where xxx, ".." and "." are complete path elements.

The algorithm may not be perfect in its handling of "." and "..", but it applies to any numbler of slashes.

Matrix spaces and Semicolons

There are a lot of web sites in which documents -- often virtual document -- vary along several dimensions. They are naturally arranged not on a tree but on a matrix. The URI for a map, for example, might be:


(I had an idea to make special form of relative URIs for these. See Matrix URIs for the idea, not a feature of the web as of 2001.)

The properties of different URI schemes

As noted above, the concept of a URI itself does not define the particular identity properties which exist between a URI and the resource associated with it. The axiom above leaves the owner of the URI to define it. However, different URI schemes are defined and implemented in different ways, and this itself can impose restrictions on the mapping.

Some of the properties of URI to resource mappings which vary from space to space were discussed in RFC1630. Some schemes (such as HTTP) leave answers up to the information publisher (URI owner).

There is a lot of flexibility and growth to be gained by allowing any sort of URI, not one from a particular scheme, in most circumstances. Similarly, one should not make assumptions about the schemes involved. This is a facet of the particular parameters about how the technology is used. The choice of type URI in a pracical use of a language is an important flexibility point.

Comparison of some URI schemes
Scheme prefix Identity relationship: what does the URI correspond to? Reuse Persistence
http Geneneric document as :defined by publisher. Generic URIs possible with content negotiation defined by publisher defined by publisher
ftp: sequence of bits defined by publisher defined by publisher
uuid: expectation of uniqueness has to be upheld by publisher defined by publisher (no dereference)
sha1: sequence of bits. mathematically extremely unlikely (no dereference)
mid: Email message. Should be 1:1 modulo recoding, and header addition/deletion Can happen after 2 years according to the spec, but absolutely not recommended (no derefernce)
mailto: mailbox as used in email protocols Socially unacceptable (no dereference)
telnet: connection endpoint for interactive login service defined by publisher (no dereference)

How not to do it

Typical URI abuse by breaking this rule is occurs when a document format provides one URI space for a "name"and one for a "location".

<a href="uri1" urn="foo">

or for example the SGML reference to a "public identifier" and a "system identifier".

The Web way is to have a reference to one URI. If in the same document you want to incldue information such as other in some ways equivalent identifiers, then you embed that in your document as metadata, to be discussed later.

That allows the exatct relationship to be expressed without ambiguity, with much more pwer and generality, and with consistency across applications.

See also

$Id: Axioms.html,v 1.36 2009/03/17 17:25:35 timbl Exp $

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