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For this RFC, original HTML is available from the RFC-Editor: RFC8942



Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)                       I. Grigorik
Request for Comments: 8942                                      Y. Weiss
Category: Experimental                                            Google
ISSN: 2070-1721                                            February 2021


                           HTTP Client Hints

Abstract

   HTTP defines proactive content negotiation to allow servers to select
   the appropriate response for a given request, based upon the user
   agent's characteristics, as expressed in request headers.  In
   practice, user agents are often unwilling to send those request
   headers, because it is not clear whether they will be used, and
   sending them impacts both performance and privacy.

   This document defines an Accept-CH response header that servers can
   use to advertise their use of request headers for proactive content
   negotiation, along with a set of guidelines for the creation of such
   headers, colloquially known as "Client Hints."

Status of This Memo

   This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is
   published for examination, experimental implementation, and
   evaluation.

   This document defines an Experimental Protocol for the Internet
   community.  This document is a product of the Internet Engineering
   Task Force (IETF).  It represents the consensus of the IETF
   community.  It has received public review and has been approved for
   publication by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG).  Not
   all documents approved by the IESG are candidates for any level of
   Internet Standard; see Section 2 of RFC 7841.

   Information about the current status of this document, any errata,
   and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at
   https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8942.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2021 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

   This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal
   Provisions Relating to IETF Documents
   (https://trustee.ietf.org/license-info) in effect on the date of
   publication of this document.  Please review these documents
   carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect
   to this document.  Code Components extracted from this document must
   include Simplified BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of
   the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as
   described in the Simplified BSD License.

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction
     1.1.  Notational Conventions
   2.  Client Hints Request Header Fields
     2.1.  Sending Client Hints
     2.2.  Server Processing of Client Hints
   3.  Advertising Server Support
     3.1.  The Accept-CH Response Header Field
     3.2.  Interaction with Caches
   4.  Security Considerations
     4.1.  Information Exposure
     4.2.  Deployment and Security Risks
     4.3.  Abuse Detection
   5.  Cost of Sending Hints
   6.  IANA Considerations
     6.1.  Accept-CH
   7.  References
     7.1.  Normative References
     7.2.  Informative References
   Acknowledgements
   Authors' Addresses

1.  Introduction

   There are thousands of different devices accessing the web, each with
   different device capabilities and preference information.  These
   device capabilities include hardware and software characteristics, as
   well as dynamic user and user agent preferences.  Historically,
   applications that wanted the server to optimize content delivery and
   user experience based on such capabilities had to rely on passive
   identification (e.g., by matching the User-Agent header field
   (Section 5.5.3 of [RFC7231]) against an established database of user
   agent signatures), use HTTP cookies [RFC6265] and URL parameters, or
   use some combination of these and similar mechanisms to enable ad hoc
   content negotiation.

   Such techniques are expensive to set up and maintain and are not
   portable across both applications and servers.  They also make it
   hard for both user agent and server to understand which data are
   required and are in use during the negotiation:

   *  User agent detection cannot reliably identify all static
      variables, cannot infer dynamic user agent preferences, requires
      an external device database, is not cache friendly, and is reliant
      on a passive fingerprinting surface.
   *  Cookie-based approaches are not portable across applications and
      servers, impose additional client-side latency by requiring
      JavaScript execution, and are not cache friendly.
   *  URL parameters, similar to cookie-based approaches, suffer from
      lack of portability and are hard to deploy due to a requirement to
      encode content negotiation data inside of the URL of each
      resource.

   Proactive content negotiation (Section 3.4.1 of [RFC7231]) offers an
   alternative approach; user agents use specified, well-defined request
   headers to advertise their capabilities and characteristics, so that
   servers can select (or formulate) an appropriate response based on
   those request headers (or on other, implicit characteristics).

   However, traditional proactive content negotiation techniques often
   mean that user agents send these request headers prolifically.  This
   causes performance concerns (because it creates "bloat" in requests),
   as well as privacy issues; passively providing such information
   allows servers to silently fingerprint the user.

   This document defines Client Hints, a framework that enables servers
   to opt-in to specific proactive content negotiation features,
   adapting their content accordingly, as well as guidelines for content
   negotiation mechanisms that use the framework.  This document also
   defines a new response header, Accept-CH, that allows an origin
   server to explicitly ask that user agents send these headers in
   requests.

   Client Hints mitigate performance concerns by assuring that user
   agents will only send the request headers when they're actually going
   to be used, and they mitigate privacy concerns of passive
   fingerprinting by requiring explicit opt-in and disclosure of
   required headers by the server through the use of the Accept-CH
   response header, turning passive fingerprinting vectors into active
   ones.

   The document does not define specific usages of Client Hints.  Such
   usages need to be defined in their respective specifications.

   One example of such usage is the User-Agent Client Hints [UA-CH].

1.1.  Notational Conventions

   The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
   "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and
   "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in
   BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all
   capitals, as shown here.

   This document uses the Augmented Backus-Naur Form (ABNF) notation of
   [RFC5234].

2.  Client Hints Request Header Fields

   A Client Hints request header field is an HTTP header field that is
   used by HTTP user agents to indicate data that can be used by the
   server to select an appropriate response.  Each one conveys user-
   agent preferences that the server can use to adapt and optimize the
   response.

2.1.  Sending Client Hints

   User agents choose what Client Hints to send in a request based on
   their default settings, user configuration, and server preferences
   expressed in "Accept-CH".  The user agent and server can use an opt-
   in mechanism outlined below to negotiate which header fields need to
   be sent to allow for efficient content adaption, and they can
   optionally use additional mechanisms (e.g., as outlined in
   [CLIENT-HINTS-INFRASTRUCTURE]) to negotiate delegation policies that
   control access of third parties to those same header fields.  User
   agents SHOULD require an opt-in to send any hints that are not
   considered low-entropy.  See the low-entropy hint table at
   [CLIENT-HINTS-INFRASTRUCTURE] for examples of hints that expose low
   amounts of entropy.

   Implementers need to be aware of the fingerprinting implications when
   implementing support for Client Hints and follow the considerations
   outlined in the Security Considerations section of this document (see
   Section 4).

2.2.  Server Processing of Client Hints

   When presented with a request that contains one or more Client Hints
   header fields, servers can optimize the response based upon the
   information in them.  When doing so, and if the resource is
   cacheable, the server MUST also generate a Vary response header field
   (Section 7.1.4 of [RFC7231]) to indicate which hints can affect the
   selected response and whether the selected response is appropriate
   for a later request.

   Servers MUST ignore hints they do not understand nor support.  There
   is no mechanism for servers to indicate to user agents that hints
   were ignored.

   Furthermore, the server can generate additional response header
   fields (as specified by the hint or hints in use) that convey related
   values to aid client processing.

3.  Advertising Server Support

   Servers can advertise support for Client Hints using the mechanism
   described below.

3.1.  The Accept-CH Response Header Field

   The Accept-CH response header field indicates server support for the
   hints indicated in its value.  Servers wishing to receive user agent
   information through Client Hints SHOULD add the Accept-CH response
   header to their responses as early as possible.

   Accept-CH is a Structured Header [RFC8941].  Its value MUST be an sf-
   list (Section 3.1 of [RFC8941]) whose members are Tokens
   (Section 3.3.4 of [RFC8941]).  Its ABNF is:

     Accept-CH = sf-list

   For example:

   Accept-CH: Sec-CH-Example, Sec-CH-Example-2

   When a user agent receives an HTTP response containing "Accept-CH",
   it indicates that the origin opts-in to receive the indicated request
   header fields for subsequent same-origin requests.  The opt-in MUST
   be ignored if delivered over non-secure transport (using a scheme
   different from HTTPS).  It SHOULD be persisted and bound to the
   origin to enable delivery of Client Hints on subsequent requests to
   the server's origin, for the duration of the user's session (as
   defined by the user agent).  An opt-in overrides previous persisted
   opt-in values and SHOULD be persisted in its stead.

   Based on the Accept-CH example above, which is received in response
   to a user agent navigating to "https://site.example", and delivered
   over a secure transport, persisted Accept-CH preferences will be
   bound to "https://site.example".  It will then use it for navigations
   to for example, "https://site.example/foobar.html", but not to, for
   example, "https://foobar.site.example/".  It will similarly use the
   preference for any same-origin resource requests (e.g., to
   "https://site.example/image.jpg") initiated by the page constructed
   from the navigation's response, but not to cross-origin resource
   requests (e.g., "https://thirdparty.example/resource.js").  This
   preference will not extend to resource requests initiated to
   "https://site.example" from other origins (e.g., from navigations to
   "https://other.example/").

3.2.  Interaction with Caches

   When selecting a response based on one or more Client Hints, and if
   the resource is cacheable, the server needs to generate a Vary
   response header field [RFC7234] to indicate which hints can affect
   the selected response and whether the selected response is
   appropriate for a later request.

   Vary: Sec-CH-Example

   The above example indicates that the cache key needs to include the
   Sec-CH-Example header field.

   Vary: Sec-CH-Example, Sec-CH-Example-2

   The above example indicates that the cache key needs to include the
   Sec-CH-Example and Sec-CH-Example-2 header fields.

4.  Security Considerations

4.1.  Information Exposure

   Request header fields used in features relying on this document
   expose information about the user's environment to enable privacy-
   preserving proactive content negotiation and avoid exposing passive
   fingerprinting vectors.  However, implementers need to bear in mind
   that in the worst case, uncontrolled and unmonitored active
   fingerprinting is not better than passive fingerprinting.  In order
   to provide user privacy benefits, user agents need to apply further
   policies that prevent abuse of the information exposed by features
   using Client Hints.

   The information exposed by features might reveal new information
   about the user, and implementers ought to consider the following
   considerations, recommendations, and best practices.

   The underlying assumption is that exposing information about the user
   as a request header is equivalent (from a security perspective) to
   exposing this information by other means.  (For example, if the
   request's origin can access that information using JavaScript APIs
   and transmit it to its servers.)

   Because Client Hints is an explicit opt-in mechanism, it means that
   servers wanting access to information about the user's environment
   need to actively ask for it, enabling clients and privacy researchers
   to keep track of which origins collect that data, and potentially act
   upon it.  The header-based opt-in means that removal of passive
   fingerprinting vectors is possible.  As an example, the user agent
   can reduce the information exposed by the User-Agent string, while
   enabling active access to that information through User-Agent Client
   Hints [UA-CH].  Otherwise, the user agent can expose information
   already available through script (e.g., the Save-Data Client Hints
   <https://wicg.github.io/savedata/#save-data-request-header-field>),
   without increasing the passive fingerprinting surface.  User agents
   supporting Client Hints features which send certain information to
   opted-in servers SHOULD avoid sending the equivalent information
   passively.

   Therefore, features relying on this document to define Client Hint
   headers MUST NOT provide new information that is otherwise not made
   available to the application by the user agent, such as existing
   request headers, HTML, CSS, or JavaScript.

   Such features need to take into account the following aspects of the
   exposed information:

   Entropy:  Exposing highly granular data can be used to help identify
      users across multiple requests to different origins.  Reducing the
      set of header field values that can be expressed, or restricting
      them to an enumerated range where the advertised value is close to
      but is not an exact representation of the current value, can
      improve privacy and reduce risk of linkability by ensuring that
      the same value is sent by multiple users.

   Sensitivity:  The feature SHOULD NOT expose user-sensitive
      information.  To that end, information available to the
      application, but gated behind specific user actions (e.g., a
      permission prompt or user activation), SHOULD NOT be exposed as a
      Client Hint.

   Change over time:  The feature SHOULD NOT expose user information
      that changes over time, unless the state change itself is also
      exposed (e.g., through JavaScript callbacks).

   Different features will be positioned in different points in the
   space between low-entropy, non-sensitive, and static information
   (e.g., user agent information) and high-entropy, sensitive, and
   dynamic information (e.g., geolocation).  User agents need to
   consider the value provided by a particular feature vs. these
   considerations and may wish to have different policies regarding that
   tradeoff on a per-feature or other fine-grained basis.

   Implementers ought to consider both user- and server-controlled
   mechanisms and policies to control which Client Hints header fields
   are advertised:

   *  Implementers SHOULD restrict delivery of some or all Client Hints
      header fields to the opt-in origin only, unless the opt-in origin
      has explicitly delegated permission to another origin to request
      Client Hints header fields.

   *  Implementers that consider providing user-choice mechanisms that
      allow users to balance privacy concerns against bandwidth
      limitations need to also consider that explaining the privacy
      implications involved to users, such as the risks of passive
      fingerprinting, may be challenging or even impractical.

   *  Implementations specific to certain use cases or threat models MAY
      avoid transmitting some or all of the Client Hints header fields.
      For example, avoid transmission of header fields that can carry
      higher risks of linkability.

   User agents MUST clear persisted opt-in preferences when any one of
   site data, browsing cache, cookies, or similar are cleared.

4.2.  Deployment and Security Risks

   Deployment of new request headers requires several considerations:

   *  Potential conflicts due to existing use of a header field name
   *  Properties of the data communicated in a header field value

   Authors of new Client Hints are advised to carefully consider whether
   they need to be able to be added by client-side content (e.g.,
   scripts) or whether the Client Hints need to be exclusively set by
   the user agent.  In the latter case, the Sec- prefix on the header
   field name has the effect of preventing scripts and other application
   content from setting them in user agents.  Using the "Sec-" prefix
   signals to servers that the user agent -- and not application content
   -- generated the values.  See [FETCH] for more information.

   By convention, request headers that are Client Hints are encouraged
   to use a CH- prefix, to make them easier to identify as using this
   framework; for example, CH-Foo or, with a "Sec-" prefix, Sec-CH-Foo.
   Doing so makes them easier to identify programmatically (e.g., for
   stripping unrecognized hints from requests by privacy filters).

   A Client Hints request header negotiated using the Accept-CH opt-in
   mechanism MUST have a field name that matches sf-token (Section 3.3.4
   of [RFC8941]).

4.3.  Abuse Detection

   A user agent that tracks access to active fingerprinting information
   SHOULD consider emission of Client Hints headers similar to the way
   it would consider access to the equivalent API.

   Research into abuse of Client Hints might look at how HTTP responses
   to requests that contain Client Hints differ from those with
   different values and from those without values.  This might be used
   to reveal which Client Hints are in use, allowing researchers to
   further analyze that use.

5.  Cost of Sending Hints

   Sending Client Hints to the server incurs an increase in request byte
   size.  Some of this increase can be mitigated by HTTP header
   compression schemes, but each new hint sent will still lead to some
   increased bandwidth usage.  Servers SHOULD take that into account
   when opting in to receive Client Hints and SHOULD NOT opt-in to
   receive hints unless they are to be used for content adaptation
   purposes.

   Due to request byte size increase, features relying on this document
   to define Client Hints MAY consider restricting sending those hints
   to certain request destinations [FETCH], where they are more likely
   to be useful.

6.  IANA Considerations

   Features relying on this document are expected to register added
   request header fields in the "Permanent Message Header Field Names"
   registry [RFC3864].

   This document defines the "Accept-CH" HTTP response header field;
   IANA has registered it in the same registry.

6.1.  Accept-CH

   Header field name:  Accept-CH

   Applicable protocol:  HTTP

   Status:  experimental

   Author/Change controller:  IETF

   Specification document(s):  Section 3.1 of this RFC

   Related information:  for Client Hints

7.  References

7.1.  Normative References

   [RFC2119]  Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
              Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2119>.

   [RFC3864]  Klyne, G., Nottingham, M., and J. Mogul, "Registration
              Procedures for Message Header Fields", BCP 90, RFC 3864,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC3864, September 2004,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc3864>.

   [RFC5234]  Crocker, D., Ed. and P. Overell, "Augmented BNF for Syntax
              Specifications: ABNF", STD 68, RFC 5234,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC5234, January 2008,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc5234>.

   [RFC7231]  Fielding, R., Ed. and J. Reschke, Ed., "Hypertext Transfer
              Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Semantics and Content", RFC 7231,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC7231, June 2014,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7231>.

   [RFC7234]  Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. Reschke,
              Ed., "Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Caching",
              RFC 7234, DOI 10.17487/RFC7234, June 2014,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7234>.

   [RFC8174]  Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC
              2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174,
              May 2017, <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8174>.

   [RFC8941]  Nottingham, M. and P-H. Kamp, "Structured Field Values for
              HTTP", RFC 8941, DOI 10.17487/RFC8941, February 2021,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8941>.

7.2.  Informative References

   [CLIENT-HINTS-INFRASTRUCTURE]
              Weiss, Y., "Client Hints Infrastructure", July 2020,
              <https://wicg.github.io/client-hints-infrastructure/>.

   [FETCH]    WHATWG, "Fetch - Living Standard",
              <https://fetch.spec.whatwg.org/>.

   [RFC6265]  Barth, A., "HTTP State Management Mechanism", RFC 6265,
              DOI 10.17487/RFC6265, April 2011,
              <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6265>.

   [UA-CH]    West, M. and Y. Weiss, "User-Agent Client Hints", August
              2020, <https://wicg.github.io/ua-client-hints/>.

Acknowledgements

   Thanks to Mark Nottingham, Julian Reschke, Chris Bentzel, Ben
   Greenstein, Tarun Bansal, Roy Fielding, Vasiliy Faronov, Ted Hardie,
   Jonas Sicking, Martin Thomson, and numerous other members of the IETF
   HTTP Working Group for invaluable help and feedback.

Authors' Addresses

   Ilya Grigorik
   Google

   Email: ilya@igvita.com
   URI:   https://www.igvita.com/


   Yoav Weiss
   Google

   Email: yoav@yoav.ws
   URI:   https://blog.yoav.ws/


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