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Re: Last Call: <draft-ietf-httpbis-http2-16.txt> (Hypertext Transfer Protocol version 2) to Proposed Standard

From: Poul-Henning Kamp <phk@phk.freebsd.dk>
Date: Wed, 07 Jan 2015 15:18:20 +0000
To: ietf@ietf.org, The IESG <iesg-secretary@ietf.org>
cc: IETF-Announce <ietf-announce@ietf.org>, ietf-http-wg@w3.org
Message-ID: <5017.1420643900@critter.freebsd.dk>

Here are my comments to the HTTP2 proposal:

HTTP/2.0 — The IETF is Phoning It In 

Bad protocol, bad politics

A very long time ago —in 1989 —Ronald Reagan was president, albeit
only for the final 19½ days of his term. And before 1989 was over
Taylor Swift had been born, and Andrei Sakharov and Samuel Beckett
had died.

In the long run, the most memorable event of 1989 will probably be
that Tim Berners-Lee hacked up the HTTP protocol and named the
result the "World Wide Web." (One remarkable property of this name
is that the abbreviation "WWW" has twice as many syllables and takes
longer to pronounce.)

Tim's HTTP protocol ran on 10Mbit/s, Ethernet, and coax cables, and
his computer was a NeXT Cube with a 25-MHz clock frequency. Twenty-six
years later, my laptop CPU is a hundred times faster and has a
thousand times as much RAM as Tim's machine had, but the HTTP
protocol is still the same.

A few days ago the IESG, The Internet Engineering Steering Group,
asked for "Last Call" comments on new "HTTP/2.0" protocol
(https://tools.ietf.org/id/draft-ietf-httpbis-http2) before blessing
it as a "Proposed Standard".

Expectations Will Vary

Some will expect a major update to the world's most popular protocol
to be a technical masterpiece and textbook example for future
students of protocol design. Some will expect that a protocol
designed during the Snowden revelations will improve their privacy.
Others will more cynically suspect the opposite. There may be a
general assumption of "faster." Many will probably also assume it
is "greener." And some of us are jaded enough to see the "2.0" and
mutter "Uh-oh, Second Systems Syndrome."

The cheat sheet answers are: no, no, probably not, maybe, no and yes.

If that sounds underwhelming, it's because it is.

HTTP/2.0 is not a technical masterpiece. It has layering violations,
inconsistencies, needless complexity, bad compromises, misses a lot
of ripe opportunities, etc. I would flunk students in my (hypothetical)
protocol design class if they submitted it. HTTP/2.0 also does not
improve your privacy. Wrapping HTTP/2.0 in SSL/TLS may or may not
improve your privacy, as would wrapping HTTP/1.1 or any other
protocol in SSL/TLS. But HTTP/2.0 itself does nothing to improve
your privacy.

This is almost triply ironic, because the major drags on HTTP are
the cookies, which are such a major privacy problem, that the EU
has legislated a notice requirement for them. HTTP/2.0 could have
done away with cookies, replacing them instead with a client
controlled session identifier. That would put users squarely in
charge of when they want to be tracked and when they don't want
to—a major improvement in privacy. It would also save bandwidth and
packets. But the proposed protocol does not do this.

The good news is that HTTP/2.0 probably does not reduce your privacy
either. It does add a number of "fingerprinting" opportunities for
the server side, but there are already so many ways to fingerprint
via cookies, JavaScript, Flash, etc. that it probably doesn't matter.

You may perceive webpages as loading faster with HTTP/2.0, but
probably only if the content provider has a global network of
servers. The individual computers involved, including your own,
will have to do more work, in particular for high-speed and large
objects like music, TV, movies etc. Nobody has demonstrated a
HTTP/2.0 implementation that approached contemporary wire speeds.
Faster? Not really.

That also answers the question about the environmental footprint:
HTTP/2.0 will require a lot more computing power than HTTP/1.1 and
thus cause increased CO2 pollution adding to climate change. You
would think that a protocol intended for tens of millions of computers
would be the subject of some green scrutiny, but surprisingly—at
least to me —I have not been able to find any evidence that the
IETF considers environmental impact at all —ever.

And yes, Second Systems Syndrome is strong.

Given this rather mediocre grade-sheet, you may be wondering why
HTTP/2.0 is even being considered as a standard in the first place.

The Answer is Politics

Google came up with the SPDY protocol, and since they have their
own browser, they could play around as they choose to, optimizing
the protocol for their particular needs. SPDY was a very good
prototype which showed clearly that there was potential for improvement
in a new version of the HTTP protocol. Kudos to Google for that.
But SPDY also started to smell a lot like a "walled garden" to some
people, and more importantly to other companies, and politics

The IETF, obviously fearing irrelevance, hastily "discovered" that
the HTTP/1.1 protocol needed an update, and tasked a working group
with preparing it on an unrealistically short schedule. This ruled
out any basis for the new HTTP/2.0 other than the SPDY protocol.
With only the most hideous of SPDY's warts removed, and all other
attempts at improvement rejected as "not in scope," "too late," or
"no consensus," the IETF can now claim relevance and victory by
conceding practically every principle ever held dear in return for
the privilege of rubber-stamping Google's initiative.

But the politics does not stop there.

The reason HTTP/2.0 does not improve privacy is that the big corporate
backers have built their business model on top of the lack of
privacy. They are very upset about NSA spying on just about everybody
in the entire world, but they do not want to do anything that
prevents them from doing the same thing. The proponents of HTTP/2.0
are also trying to use it as a lever for the "SSL anywhere" agenda,
despite the fact that many HTTP applications have no need for, no
desire for, or may even be legally banned from using encryption.

Your Country, State, or County Emergency Webpage?

Local governments have no desire to spend resources negotiating
SSL/TLS with every single smartphone in their area when things
explode, rivers flood, or people are poisoned. Big news sites
similarly prioritize being able to deliver news over being able to
hide the fact that they are delivering news, particularly when
something big happens. (Has everybody in IETF forgotten CNN's
exponential traffic graph from 14 years ago?)

The so-called "multimedia business," which amounts to about 30% of
all traffic on the net, expresses no desire to be forced to spend
resources on pointless encryption. There are even people who are
legally barred from having privacy of communication: children,
prisoners, financial traders, CIA analysts and so on. Yet, despite
this, HTTP/2.0 will be SSL/TLS only, in at least three out of four
of the major browsers, in order to force a particular political
agenda. The same browsers, ironically, treat self-signed certificates
as if they were mortally dangerous, despite the fact that they offer
secrecy at trivial cost. (Secrecy means that only you and the other
party can decode what is being communicated. Privacy is secrecy
with an identified or authenticated other party.)

History has shown overwhelmingly that if you want to change the
world for the better, you should deliver good tools for making it
better, not policies for making it better.

I recommend that anybody with a voice in this matter turn their
thumbs down on the HTTP/2.0 draft standard: It is not a good protocol
and it is not even good politics.

Poul-Henning Kamp

(Author of the Varnish HTTP web-accelerator.)

PS: (Also published at: http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=2716278)

Poul-Henning Kamp       | UNIX since Zilog Zeus 3.20
phk@FreeBSD.ORG         | TCP/IP since RFC 956
FreeBSD committer       | BSD since 4.3-tahoe    
Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence.
Received on Wednesday, 7 January 2015 15:18:47 UTC

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