Tag Archives: URL

My URL isn’t your URL


When I started the precursor to the curl project, httpget, back in 1996, I wrote my first URL parser. Back then, the universal address was still called URL: Uniform Resource Locators. That spec was published by the IETF in 1994. The term “URL” was then used as source for inspiration when naming the tool and project curl.

The term URL was later effectively changed to become URI, Uniform Resource Identifiers (published in 2005) but the basic point remained: a syntax for a string to specify a resource online and which protocol to use to get it. We claim curl accepts “URLs” as defined by this spec, the RFC 3986. I’ll explain below why it isn’t strictly true.

There was also a companion RFC posted for IRI: Internationalized Resource Identifiers. They are basically URIs but allowing non-ascii characters to be used.

The WHATWG consortium later produced their own URL spec, basically mixing formats and ideas from URIs and IRIs with a (not surprisingly) strong focus on browsers. One of their expressed goals is to “Align RFC 3986 and RFC 3987 with contemporary implementations and obsolete them in the process“. They want to go back and use the term “URL” as they rightfully state, the terms URI and IRI are just confusing and no humans ever really understood them (or often even knew they exist).

The WHATWG spec follows the good old browser mantra of being very liberal in what it accepts and trying to guess what the users mean and bending backwards trying to fulfill. (Even though we all know by now that Postel’s Law is the wrong way to go about this.) It means it’ll handle too many slashes, embedded white space as well as non-ASCII characters.

From my point of view, the spec is also very hard to read and follow due to it not describing the syntax or format very much but focuses far too much on mandating a parsing algorithm. To test my claim: figure out what their spec says about a trailing dot after the host name in a URL.

On top of all these standards and specs, browsers offer an “address bar” (a piece of UI that often goes under other names) that allows users to enter all sorts of fun strings and they get converted over to a URL. If you enter “http://localhost/%41” in the address bar, it’ll convert the percent encoded part to an ‘A’ there for you (since 41 in hex is a capital A in ASCII) but if you type “http://localhost/A A” it’ll actually send “/A%20A” (with a percent encoded space) in the outgoing HTTP GET request. I’m mentioning this since people will often think of what you can enter there as a “URL”.

The above is basically my (skewed) perspective of what specs and standards we have so far to work with. Now we add reality and let’s take a look at what sort of problems we get when my URL isn’t your URL.

So what  is a URL?

Or more specifically, how do we write them. What syntax do we use.

I think one of the biggest mistakes the WHATWG spec has made (and why you will find me argue against their spec in its current form with fierce conviction that they are wrong), is that they seem to believe that URLs are theirs to define and work with and they limit their view of URLs for browsers, HTML and their address bars. Sure, they are the big companies behind the browsers almost everyone uses and URLs are widely used by browsers, but URLs are still much bigger than so.

The WHATWG view of a URL is not widely adopted outside of browsers.


If we ask users, ordinary people with no particular protocol or web expertise, what a URL is what would they answer? While it was probably more notable years ago when the browsers displayed it more prominently, the :// (colon-slash-slash) sequence will be high on the list. Seeing that marks the string as a URL.

Heck, going beyond users, there are email clients, terminal emulators, text editors, perl scripts and a bazillion other things out there in the world already that detects URLs for us and allows operations on that. It could be to open that URL in a browser, to convert it to a clickable link in generated HTML and more. A vast amount of said scripts and programs will use the colon-slash-slash sequence as a trigger.

The WHATWG spec says it has to be one slash and that a parser must accept an indefinite amount of slashes. “http:/example.com” and “http:////////////////////////////////////example.com” are both equally fine. RFC 3986 and many others would disagree. Heck, most people I’ve confronted the last few days, even people working with the web, seem to say, think and believe that a URL has two slashes. Just look closer at the google picture search screen shot at the top of this article, which shows the top images for “URL” google gave me.

We just know a URL has two slashes there (and yeah, file: URLs most have three but lets ignore that for now). Not one. Not three. Two. But the WHATWG doesn’t agree.

“Is there really any reason for accepting more than two slashes for non-file: URLs?” (my annoyed question to the WHATWG)

“The fact that all browsers do.”

The spec says so because browsers have implemented the spec.

No better explanation has been provided, not even after I pointed out that the statement is wrong and far from all browsers do. You may find reading that thread educational.

In the curl project, we’ve just recently started debating how to deal with “URLs” having another amount of slashes than two because it turns out there are servers sending back such URLs in Location: headers, and some browsers are happy to oblige. curl is not and neither is a lot of other libraries and command line tools. Who do we stand up for?


A space character (the ASCII code 32, 0x20 in hex) cannot be part of a URL. If you want it sent, you percent encode it like you do with any other illegal character you want to be part of the URL. Percent encoding is the byte value in hexadecimal with a percent sign in front of it. %20 thus means space. It also means that a parser that for example scans for URLs in a text knows that it reaches the end of the URL when the parser encounters a character that isn’t allowed. Like space.

Browsers typically show the address in their address bars with all %20 instances converted to space for appearance. If you copy the address there into your clipboard and then paste it again in your text editor you still normally get the spaces as %20 like you want them.

I’m not sure if that is the reason, but browsers also accept spaces as part of URLs when for example receiving a redirect in a HTTP response. That’s passed from a server to a client using a Location: header with the URL in it. The browsers happily allow spaces in that URL, encode them as %20 and send out the next request. This forced curl into accepting spaces in redirected “URLs”.


Making URLs support non-ASCII languages is of course important, especially for non-western societies and I’ve understood that the IRI spec was never good enough. I personally am far from an expert on these internationalization (i18n) issues so I just go by what I’ve heard from others. But of course users of non-latin alphabets and typing systems need to be able to write their “internet addresses” to resources and use as links as well.

In an ideal world, we would have the i18n version shown to users and there would be the encoded ASCII based version below, to get sent over the wire.

For international domain names, the name gets converted over to “punycode” so that it can be resolved using the normal system name resolvers that know nothing about non-ascii names. URIs have no IDN names, IRIs do and WHATWG URLs do. curl supports IDN host names.

WHATWG states that URLs are specified as UTF-8 while URIs are just ASCII. curl gets confused by non-ASCII letters in the path part but percent encodes such byte values in the outgoing requests – which causes “interesting” side-effects when the non-ASCII characters are provided in other encodings than UTF-8 which for example is standard on Windows…

Similar to what I’ve written above, this leads to servers passing back non-ASCII byte codes in HTTP headers that browsers gladly accept, and non-browsers need to deal with…

No URL standard

I’ve not tried to write a conclusive list of problems or differences, just a bunch of things I’ve fallen over recently. A “URL” given in one place is certainly not certain to be accepted or understood as a “URL” in another place.

Not even curl follows any published spec very closely these days, as we’re slowly digressing for the sake of “web compatibility”.

There’s no unified URL standard and there’s no work in progress towards that. I don’t count WHATWG’s spec as a real effort either, as it is written by a closed group with no real attempts to get the wider community involved.

My affiliation

I’m employed by Mozilla and Mozilla is a member of WHATWG and I have colleagues working on the WHATWG URL spec and other work items of theirs but it makes absolutely no difference to what I’ve written here. I also participate in the IETF and I consider myself friends with authors of RFC 1738, RFC 3986 and others but that doesn’t matter here either. My opinions are my own and this is my personal blog.

curl, smiley-URLs and libc

Some interesting Unicode URLs have recently been seen used in the wild – like in this billboard ad campaign from Coca Cola, and a friend of mine asked me about curl in reference to these and how it deals with such URLs.


(Picture by stevencoleuk)

I ran some tests and decided to blog my observations since they are a bit curious. The exact URL I tried was ‘www.😃.ws’ (not the same smiley as shown on this billboard: 😂) – it is really hard to enter by hand so now is the time to appreciate your ability to cut and paste! It appears they registered several domains for a set of different smileys.

These smileys are not really allowed IDN (where IDN means International Domain Names) symbols which make these domains a bit different. They should not (see below for details) be converted to punycode before getting resolved but instead I assume that the pure UTF-8 sequence should or at least will be fed into the name resolver function. Well, either way it should either pass in punycode or the UTF-8 string.

If curl was built to use libidn, it still won’t convert this to punycode and the verbose output says “Failed to convert www.😃.ws to ACE; String preparation failed

curl (exact version doesn’t matter) using the stock threaded resolver

  • Debian Linux (glibc 2.19) – FAIL
  • Windows 7 – FAIL
  • Mac OS X 10.9 – SUCCESS

But then also perhaps to no surprise, the exact same results are shown if I try to ping those host names on these systems. It works on the mac, it fails on Linux and Windows. Wget 1.16 also fails on my Debian systems (just as a reference and I didn’t try it on any of the other platforms).

My curl build on Linux that uses c-ares for name resolving instead of glibc succeeds perfectly. host, nslookup and dig all work fine with it on Linux too (as well as nslookup on Windows):

$ host www.😃.ws
www.\240\159\152\131.ws has address
$ ping www.😃.ws
ping: unknown host www.😃.ws

While the same command sequence on the mac shows:

$ host www.😃.ws
www.\240\159\152\131.ws has address
$ ping www.😃.ws
PING www.😃.ws ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from icmp_seq=0 ttl=44 time=191.689 ms
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=44 time=191.124 ms

Slightly interesting additional tidbit: if I rebuild curl to use gethostbyname_r() instead of getaddrinfo() it works just like on the mac, so clearly this is glibc having an opinion on how this should work when given this UTF-8 hostname.

Pasting in the URL into Firefox and Chrome works just fine. They both convert the name to punycode and use “www.xn--h28h.ws” which then resolves to the same IPv4 address.

Update: as was pointed out in a comment below, the “” IP address is not the correct IP for the site. It is just the registrar’s landing page so it sends back that response to any host or domain name in the .ws domain that doesn’t exist!

What do the IDN specs say?

The U-263A smileyThis is not my area of expertise. I had to consult Patrik Fältström here to get this straightened out (but please if I got something wrong here the mistake is still all mine). Apparently this smiley is allowed in RFC 3940 (IDNA2003), but that has been replaced by RFC 5890-5892 (IDNA2008) where this is DISALLOWED. If you read the spec, this is 263A.

So, depending on which spec you follow it was a valid IDN character or it isn’t anymore.

What does the libc docs say?

The POSIX docs for getaddrinfo doesn’t contain enough info to tell who’s right but it doesn’t forbid UTF-8 encoded strings. The regular glibc docs for getaddrinfo also doesn’t say anything and interestingly, the Apple Mac OS X version of the docs says just as little.

With this complete lack of guidance, it is hardly any additional surprise that the glibc gethostbyname docs also doesn’t mention what it does in this case but clearly it doesn’t do the same as getaddrinfo in the glibc case at least.

What’s on the actual site?

A redirect to www.emoticoke.com which shows a rather boring page.


Who’s right?

I don’t know. What do you think?

curl and the road to IPv6

I’d like to comment Paul Saab’s presentation from the other day at the World IPv6 Congress titled “The Road To IPv6 – Bumpy“. Paul works for Facebook and in his talk he apparently mentioned curl (slide 24 of the PDF set).

Lots of my friends have since directed my attention to those slides and asked for my comment. I haven’t seen Paul’s actual presentation, only read the slides, but I have had a shorter twitter conversation with him about what he meant with his words.

The slide in question says exactly this:


  • Very hostile to the format of the IPv6 address
  • Wants everything bracket enclosed
  • Many IPv6 bugs that only recently were fixed

Let’s see what those mean. Very hostile to the format of the IPv6 address and Wants everything bracket enclosed are basically the same thing.

Paul makes a big point about the fact that if you want to write a URL with an IP address instead of a host name, you have to put that IP address within [brackets] when the IP address is an IPv6 one, which you don’t do if it is an IPv4 one.

Right. Sure. You do. That’s certainly an obstacle when converting slightly naive applications from IPv4 to IPv6 environments. This syntax is mandated by RFCs and standards (RFC3986 to be exact). curl follows the standards and you’ll do it the same way in other tools and clients that use URLs. The problem manifests itself if you use curl for your task, but if you’d use something else instead that something else would have the same issue if it follows the standards. The reason for the brackets requirements is of course that IPv6 numerical addresses contain colons and colons already have a reserved meaning in the host part of URLs so they had to come up with some way to handle that.

Then finally, Many IPv6 bugs that only recently were fixed he said.

I’m the main developer and maintainer of the curl project. This is news to me. Sure we always fix bugs and we always find stupid things we fix so there’s no doubt about that we’ve had IPv6 related bugs that we’ve fixed – and that we still have IPv6 related bugs we haven’t yet found – but saying that we fixed many such bugs recently? That isn’t something I’m aware of. My guess is that he’s talking about hiccups we’ve had after introducing happy eyeballs, a change we introduced in release 7.34.0 in December 2013.

curl has had IPv6 support since January 2001. We’re on that bumpy road to IPv6!

what’s –next for curl

curl is finally getting support for doing multiple independent requests specified in the same command line, which allows users to make even better use of curl’s excellent persistent connection handling and more. I don’t know when I first got the question of how to do a GET and a POST in a single command line with curl, but I do know that we’ve had the TODO item about adding such a feature mentioned since 2004 – and I know it wasn’t added there right away…

Starting in curl 7.36.0, we can respond with a better answer: use the –next option!

curl has been able to work with multiple URLs on the command line virtually since day 1, but all the command line options would then mostly apply and be used for all specified URLs.

This new –next option introduces a “boundary”, or a wall if you like, between options on the command line. The options set before –next will be handled as one request and the options set on the right side of –next will start adding up to another request. You of course then need to specify at least one URL per individual such section and you can add any number of –next on the command line. If the command line then gets too long, we also support the same logic and sequence in the “config files” which is the way you can specify command line arguments into a text file and have curl read them from there using -K or –config.

Here’s a somewhat silly example to illustrate. This fist makes a POST and then a HEAD to two different pages on the same host:

curl -d FOO example.com/input.cgi --next --head example.com/robots.txt

Thanks to Steve Holme for his hard work on implementing this!

dotdot removal in libcurl 7.32.0

Allow as much as possible and only sanitize what’s absolutely necessary.

That has basically been the rule for the URL parser in curl and libcurl since the project was started in the 90s. The upside with this is that you can use curl to torture your web servers with tests and you can handicraft really imaginary stuff to send and thus subsequently to receive. It kind of assumes that the user truly gives curl a URL the user wants to use.

Why would you give curl a broken URL?

But of course life and internet protocols, and perhaps in particular HTTP, is more involved than that. It soon becomes more complicated.


Everyone who’s writing a web user-agent based on RFC 2616 soon faces the fact that redirects based on the Location: header is a source of fun and head-scratching. It is defined in the spec as only allowing “absolute URLs” but the reality is that they were also provided as relative ones by web servers already from the start so the browsers of course support that (and the pending HTTPbis document is already making this clear). curl thus also adopted support for relative URLs, meaning the ability to “merge” or “add” a relative URL onto a previously used absolute one had to be implemented. And even illegally constructed URLs are done this way and in the grand tradition of web browsers, they have not tried to stop users from doing bad things, they have instead adapted and now instead try to convert it to what the user could’ve meant. Like for example using a white space within the URL you send in a Location: header. Even curl has to sanitize that so that it works more like the browsers.

Relative path segments

The path part of URLs are truly to be seen as a path, in that it is a hierarchical scheme where each slash-separated part adds a piece. Like “/first/second/third.html”

As it turns out, you can also include modifiers in the path that have special meanings. Like the “..” (two dots or periods next to each other) known from shells and command lines to mean “one directory level up” can also be used in the path part of a URL like “/one/three/../two/three.html” which equals “/one/two/three.html” when the dotdot sequence is handled. This dot removal procedure is documented in the generic URL specification RFC 3986 (published January 2005) and is completely protocol agnostic. It works like this for HTTP, FTP and every other protocol you provide a path part for.

In its traditional spirit of just accepting and passing along, curl didn’t use to treat “dotdots” in any particular way but handed it over to the server to deal with. There probably aren’t that terribly many such occurrences either so it never really caused any problems or made any users hit any particular walls (or they were too shy to report it); until one day back in February this year… so we finally had to do something about this. Some 8 years after the spec saying it must be done was released.

dotdot removal

Alas, libcurl 7.32.0 now features (once it gets released around August 12th) full traversal and handling of such sequences in the path part of URLs. It also includes single dot sequences like in “/one/./two”. libcurl will detect such uses and convert the path to a sequence without them and continue on. This of course will cause a limited altered behavior for the possible small portion of users out there in the world who would use dotdot sequences and actually want them to get sent as-is the way libcurl has been doing it. I decided against adding an option for disabling this behavior, but of course if someone would experience terrible pain and can reported about it convincingly to us we could possible reconsider that decision in the future.

I suspect (and hope) this will just be another little change along the way that will make libcurl act more standard and more like the browsers and thus cause less problems to users but without people much having to care about how or why.

Further reading: the dotdot.c file from the libcurl source tree!

Bonus kit

A dot to dot surprise drawing for you and your kids (click for higher resolution)

curl dot-to-dot