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a percent-encoding how-to (sort of)

From: Mike Brown <mike@skew.org>
Date: Tue, 20 Apr 2004 00:03:56 -0600 (MDT)
Message-Id: <200404200603.i3K63uAI015550@chilled.skew.org>
To: uri@w3.org

I hate to post and then run off on vacation for 3 weeks, (I'm going to western
Japan, seeing as much as I can from Ibusuki to Tokyo, if anyone wants to show
me around...), and I am sorry to rehash this same old stuff, but...

In order to implement and document RFC 2396bis related functions in Python, I
am trying to write up an idiot-proof description of the process of creating
URI components from arbitrary data. This is proving to be quite difficult, for
even in draft 05, percent-encoding is still being explained in bits & pieces
across multiple sections of the spec, and seems to be incomplete in terms of
describing existing practice, prescribing recommendations, and accounting for
all possible interpretations of the data.

Here is how I would describe the process to somebody today, based on my
understanding of draft 04, my attempts to implement it, and my recollection of
what I've seen in practice. Please let me know where I got it wrong. I'm
probably misunderstanding something again.


Each URI component must ultimately be constructed as a sequence of Unicode
characters. Therefore, in order to represent arbitrary data in a URI
component, one must first determine whether the data is character based, and
if so, whether it is a Unicode string or an encoded string. Then, the
following guidelines apply:

A. Non-character data
When the data is not character based, it must be converted to either
characters or octets, unless it is in octet form already. The spec
governing the URI scheme or data format should mandate how the data
is to be converted, but it may also be an implementation-dependent

If the data is converted to characters, then proceed according to (B)
or (C), below.

If the data is converted to or was already in octet form, then each
octet becomes a percent-encoded sequence representing that octet.

Example: here are the first 16 bytes of a GIF entity, in hex:

  47 49 46 38 39 61 07 00 07 00 A2 00 00 00 00 00

Option 1: Convert the octets to percent-encoded sequences:


Option 2: Convert to characters, such as with Base64:


This can then be treated as character data, according to (B) or (C),

B. ISO/IEC 10646 (Unicode) character data
When the data consists of ISO/IEC 10646 (Unicode) characters, each
character is handled as follows:

1. Each character that is in the reserved set but that is not being
used for its reserved purpose becomes a percent-encoded sequence
representing that character's octet in US-ASCII.

2. Each character between U+0000 and U+007F that is in the
unreserved set either:

   a. does not change (the preferred outcome), or

   b. becomes a percent-encoded sequence representing the
   character's octet in the US-ASCII encoding.

3. Each character between U+0000 and U+007F that is in neither the
reserved nor unreserved sets becomes a percent-encoded sequence
representing that character's octet in US-ASCII.

4. Each character above U+007F becomes one or more percent-encoded
sequences representing that character's octet(s) in UTF-8, unless
a different encoding is mandated by the spec governing the URI scheme.

For example, here's the Unicode string "greeting=" followed by an
actual greeting in Japanese:

  U+0067 U+0072 U+0065 U+0065 U+0074 U+0069 U+006E U+0067 U+003D
  U+4ECA U+65E5 U+306F

If the destination is the query component of a URI, and the intent
is to use the "=" for its reserved purpose -- that is, to express,
for example, in an 'http'-schemed URI a query argument consisting of
the name "greeting" and the 3 Japanese characters U+4ECA U+65E5 U+306F
as the argument's value, then one must first convert all but the "="
to UTF-8 octets:

  g  r  e  e  t  i  n  g       =       U+4ECA   U+65E5   U+306F
  67 72 64 64 74 69 6E 67 (unchanged) E4 BB 8A E6 97 A5 E3 81 AF

Then convert the octets to unreserved characters and percent-encoded


If, however, the "=" were not being used for its reserved purpose,
then it would be percent-encoded:


In either case, the unreserved characters ("greeting") could become
percent-encoded sequences without changing their meaning. For example,


is equivalent to


C. Encoded character data
When the data consists of characters that have already been encoded as
octets (i.e., any encoded character string, such as an iso-8859-1 or
windows-1252 byte string), one of the following courses of action is
chosen. The spec governing a URI scheme may mandate one course of action over
the other, but in practice, it is generally left up to the implementation,
a situation which leaves much room for misinterpretation of the URI
component down the line.

1. The octets are treated opaquely:

Each octet that, in US-ASCII, represents an unreserved character
becomes that character (this is the preferred outcome) or becomes a
percent-encoded sequence representing that octet. Any other octet
becomes a percent-encoded sequence representing that octet.


2. The octets are treated as representing characters:

Each octet in the data is decoded back into Unicode characters
according to the known encoding of the data. If the encoding is not
known, then UTF-8 should be assumed, but in practice, a platform
default encoding is the common assumption. Such assumptions are only
as reliable as the URI producer's knowledge of how the encoded string
was generated.

The Unicode sequence is then treated as in B, above.


A directory named "4  3" on a non-Unicode filesystem might manifest
as an encoded string like this (in hex):

  34 20 F7 20 33

In the opaque scenario, the octets are converted to unreserved
characters and percent-encoded sequences directly, resulting in


In the decode-first scenario, the octets are converted to Unicode
characters (possibly incorrectly, if the encoding isn't known). Then,
following the procedure in (B), some of the characters become percent-
encoded sequences, resulting in this sequence, assuming UTF-8 was the
basis for the percent-encoding of the division sign:



(Also note that the way I have described things, there is no need to specify
that "%" needs to become "%25".)

Received on Tuesday, 20 April 2004 02:03:54 UTC

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