Request for Comments: 6530
Obsoletes: 4952, 5504, 5825
Category: Standards Track
Overview and Framework for Internationalized Email
Full use of electronic mail throughout the world requires that (subject to other constraints) people be able to use close variations on their own names (written correctly in their own languages and scripts) as mailbox names in email addresses. This document introduces a series of specifications that define mechanisms and protocol extensions needed to fully support internationalized email addresses. These changes include an SMTP extension and extension of email header syntax to accommodate UTF-8 data. The document set also includes discussion of key assumptions and issues in deploying fully internationalized email. This document is a replacement for RFC 4952; it reflects additional issues identified since that document was published.
Status of This Memo
This is an Internet Standards Track document.
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). Further information on Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 5741.
Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at http://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6530.
Copyright © 2012 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the document authors. All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 2. Role of This Specification . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 3. Problem Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 4. Terminology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 4.1. Mail User and Mail Transfer Agents . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 4.2. Address Character Sets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 4.3. User Types . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 4.4. Messages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 4.5. Mailing Lists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 4.6. Conventional Message and Internationalized Message . . . . 8 4.7. Undeliverable Messages, Notification, and Delivery Receipts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 5. Overview of the Approach and Document Plan . . . . . . . . . . 9 6. Review of Experimental Results . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 7. Overview of Protocol Extensions and Changes . . . . . . . . . 10 7.1. SMTP Extension for Internationalized Email Address . . . . 10 7.2. Transmission of Email Header Fields in UTF-8 Encoding . . 11 7.3. SMTP Service Extension for DSNs . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 8. Downgrading before and after SMTP Transactions . . . . . . . . 12 8.1. Downgrading before or during Message Submission . . . . . 13 8.2. Downgrading or Other Processing after Final SMTP Delivery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 9. Downgrading in Transit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 10. User Interface and Configuration Issues . . . . . . . . . . . 15 10.1. Choices of Mailbox Names and Unicode Normalization . . . . 15 11. Additional Issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 11.1. Impact on URIs and IRIs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 11.2. Use of Email Addresses as Identifiers . . . . . . . . . . 17 11.3. Encoded Words, Signed Messages, and Downgrading . . . . . 18 11.4. Other Uses of Local Parts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 11.5. Non-Standard Encapsulation Formats . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 12. Key Changes from the Experimental Protocols and Framework . . 19 13. Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 14. Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 15. References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 15.1. Normative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 15.2. Informative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
In order to use internationalized email addresses, it is necessary to internationalize both the domain part and the local part of email addresses. The domain part of email addresses is already internationalized [RFC5890], while the local part is not. Without the extensions specified in this document, the mailbox name is restricted to a subset of 7-bit ASCII [RFC5321]. Though MIME [RFC2045] enables the transport of non-ASCII data, it does not provide a mechanism for internationalized email addresses. In RFC 2047 [RFC2047], MIME defines an encoding mechanism for some specific message header fields to accommodate non-ASCII data. However, it does not permit the use of email addresses that include non-ASCII characters. Without the extensions defined here, or some equivalent set, the only way to incorporate non-ASCII characters in any part of email addresses is to use RFC 2047 coding to embed them in what RFC 5322 [RFC5322] calls the "display name" (known as a "name phrase" or by other terms elsewhere) of the relevant header fields. Information coded into the display name is invisible in the message envelope and, for many purposes, is not part of the address at all.
This document is a replacement for RFC 4952 [RFC4952]; it reflects additional issues, shared terminology, and some architectural changes identified since that document was published. It obsoletes that document. The experimental descriptions of in-transit downgrading [RFC5504] [RFC5825] are now irrelevant and no longer needed due to the changes discussed in Section 12. The RFC Editor is requested to move all three of those documents to Historic.
The pronouns "he" and "she" are used interchangeably to indicate a human of indeterminate gender.
The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14, RFC 2119 [RFC2119].
2. Role of This Specification
This document presents the overview and framework for an approach to the next stage of email internationalization. This new stage requires not only internationalization of addresses and header fields, but also associated transport and delivery models. A prior version of this specification, RFC 4952 [RFC4952], also provided an introduction to a series of experimental protocols [RFC5335] [RFC5336] [RFC5337] [RFC5504] [RFC5721] [RFC5738] [RFC5825]. This revised form provides overview and conceptual information for the Standards Track successors of a subset of those protocols. Details of the documents and the relationships among them appear in Section 5 and a discussion of what was learned from the experimental protocols and their implementations appears in Section 6.
Taken together, these specifications provide the details for a way to implement and support internationalized email. The document itself describes how the various elements of email internationalization fit together and the relationships among the primary specifications associated with message transport, header formats, and handling.
This document, and others that comprise the collection described above, assume a reasonable familiarity with the basic Internet electronic mail specifications and terminology [RFC5321] [RFC5322] and the MIME [RFC2045] and 8BITMIME [RFC6152] ones as well. While not strictly required to implement this specification, a general familiarity with the terminology and functions of IDNA [RFC5890] [RFC5891] [RFC5892] [RFC5893] [RFC5894] are also assumed.
3. Problem Statement
Internationalizing Domain Names in Applications (IDNA) [RFC5890] permits internationalized domain names, but deployment has not yet reached most users. One of the reasons for this is that we do not yet have fully internationalized naming schemes. Domain names are just one of the various names and identifiers that are required to be internationalized. In many contexts, until more of those identifiers are internationalized, internationalized domain names alone have little value.
Email addresses are prime examples of why it is not good enough to just internationalize the domain name. As most observers have learned from experience, users strongly prefer email addresses that resemble names or initials to those involving seemingly meaningless strings of letters or numbers. Unless the entire email address can use familiar characters and formats, users will perceive email as being culturally unfriendly. If the names and initials used in email addresses can be expressed in the native languages and writing systems of the users, the Internet will be perceived as more natural, especially by those whose native language is not written in a subset of a Roman-derived script.
Internationalization of email addresses is not merely a matter of changing the SMTP envelope; or of modifying the "From:", "To:", and "Cc:" header fields; or of permitting upgraded Mail User Agents (MUAs) to decode a special coding and respond by displaying local characters. To be perceived as usable, the addresses must be internationalized and handled consistently in all of the contexts in which they occur. This requirement has far-reaching implications: collections of patches and workarounds are not adequate. Even if they were adequate, a workaround-based approach may result in an assortment of implementations with different sets of patches and workarounds having been applied with consequent user confusion about what is actually usable and supported. Instead, we need to build a fully internationalized email environment, focusing on permitting efficient communication among those who share a language and writing system. That, in turn, implies changes to the mail header environment to permit those header fields that are appropriately internationalized to utilize the full range of Unicode characters, an SMTP extension to permit UTF-8 [RFC3629] [RFC5198] mail addressing and delivery of those extended header fields, support for internationalization of delivery and service notifications [RFC3461] [RFC3464], and (finally) a requirement for support of the 8BITMIME SMTP extension [RFC6152] so that all of these can be transported through the mail system without having to overcome the limitation that header fields do not have content-transfer-encodings.
This document assumes a reasonable understanding of the protocols and terminology of the core email standards as documented in RFC 5321 [RFC5321] and RFC 5322 [RFC5322].
4.1. Mail User and Mail Transfer Agents
Much of the description in this document depends on the abstractions of "Mail Transfer Agent" ("MTA") and "Mail User Agent" ("MUA"). However, it is important to understand that those terms and the underlying concepts postdate the design of the Internet's email architecture and the application of the "protocols on the wire" principle to it. That email architecture, as it has evolved, and that "on the wire" principle have prevented any strong and standardized distinctions about how MTAs and MUAs interact on a given origin or destination host (or even whether they are separate).
However, the term "final delivery MTA" is used in this document in a fashion equivalent to the term "delivery system" or "final delivery system" of RFC 5321. This is the SMTP server that controls the format of the local parts of addresses and is permitted to inspect and interpret them. It receives messages from the network for delivery to mailboxes or for other local processing, including any forwarding or aliasing that changes envelope addresses, rather than relaying. From the perspective of the network, any local delivery arrangements such as saving to a message store, handoff to specific message delivery programs or agents, and mechanisms for retrieving messages are all "behind" the final delivery MTA and hence are not part of the SMTP transport or delivery process.
4.2. Address Character Sets
In this document, an address is "all-ASCII", or just an "ASCII address", if every character in the address is in the ASCII character repertoire [ASCII]; an address is "non-ASCII", or an "i18n-address", if any character is not in the ASCII character repertoire. Such addresses MAY be restricted in other ways, but those restrictions are not relevant to this definition. The term "all-ASCII" is also applied to other protocol elements when the distinction is important, with "non-ASCII" or "internationalized" as its opposite.
The umbrella term to describe the email address internationalization specified by this document and its companion documents is "SMTPUTF8". For example, an address permitted by this specification is referred to as a "SMTPUTF8 (compliant) address".
Please note that, according to the definitions given here, the set of all "all-ASCII" addresses and the set of all "non-ASCII" addresses are mutually exclusive. The set of all addresses permitted when SMTPUTF8 appears is the union of these two sets.
4.3. User Types
An "ASCII user" (i) exclusively uses email addresses that contain ASCII characters only, and (ii) cannot generate recipient addresses that contain non-ASCII characters.
An "internationalized email user" has one or more non-ASCII email addresses, or is able to generate recipient addresses that contain non-ASCII characters. Such a user may have ASCII addresses too; if the user has more than one email account and a corresponding address, or more than one alias for the same address, he or she has some method to choose which address to use on outgoing email. Note that under this definition, it is not possible to tell from an ASCII address if the owner of that address is an internationalized email user or not. (A non-ASCII address implies a belief that the owner of that address is an internationalized email user.) There is no such thing as an "internationalized email user message"; the term applies only to users and their agents and capabilities. In particular, the use of non-ASCII, and hence presumably internationalized, message content is an integral part of the MIME specifications [RFC2045] and does not require these extensions (although it is compatible with them).
A "message" is sent from one user (the sender) using a particular email address to one or more other recipient email addresses (often referred to just as "users" or "recipient users").
4.5. Mailing Lists
A "mailing list" is a mechanism whereby a message may be distributed to multiple recipients by sending it to one recipient address. An agent (typically not a human being) at that single address then causes the message to be redistributed to the target recipients. This agent sets the envelope return address of the redistributed message to a different address from that of the original single recipient message. Using a different envelope return address (reverse-path) causes error (and other automatically generated) messages to go to an error-handling address.
Special provisions for managing mailing lists that might contain non- ASCII addresses are discussed in a document that is specific to that topic [RFC5983] and its expected successor [RFC5983bis-MailingList].
4.6. Conventional Message and Internationalized Message
- A conventional message is one that does not use any extension defined in the SMTP extension document [RFC6531] or in the UTF8header document [RFC6532] in this set of specifications, and is strictly conformant to RFC 5322 [RFC5322].
- An internationalized message is a message utilizing one or more of the extensions defined in this set of specifications, so that it is no longer conformant to the traditional specification of an email message or its transport.
4.7. Undeliverable Messages, Notification, and Delivery Receipts
As specified in RFC 5321, a message that is undeliverable for some reason is expected to result in notification to the sender. This can occur in either of two ways. One, typically called "Rejection", occurs when an SMTP server returns a reply code indicating a fatal error (a "5yz" code) or persistently returns a temporary failure error (a "4yz" code). The other involves accepting the message during SMTP processing and then generating a message to the sender, typically known as a "Non-delivery Notification" or "NDN". Current practice often favors rejection over NDNs because of the reduced likelihood that the generation of NDNs will be used as a spamming technique. The latter, NDN, case is unavoidable if an intermediate MTA accepts a message that is then rejected by the next-hop server.
A sender MAY also explicitly request message receipts [RFC3461] that raise the same issues for these internationalization extensions as NDNs.
5. Overview of the Approach and Document Plan
This set of specifications changes both SMTP and the character encoding of email message headers to permit non-ASCII characters to be represented directly. Each important component of the work is described in a separate document. The document set, whose members are described below, also contains Informational documents whose purpose is to provide implementation suggestions and guidance for the protocols.
In addition to this document, the following documents make up this specification and provide advice and context for it.
- SMTP extension. The SMTP extension document [RFC6531] provides an SMTP extension (as provided for in RFC 5321) for internationalized addresses.
- Email message headers in UTF-8. The email message header document [RFC6532] essentially updates RFC 5322 to permit some information in email message headers to be expressed directly by Unicode characters encoded in UTF-8 when the SMTP extension described above is used. This document, possibly with one or more supplemental ones, will also need to address the interactions with MIME, including relationships between SMTPUTF8 and internal MIME headers and content types.
- Extensions to delivery status and notification handling to adapt to internationalized addresses [RFC6533].
6. Review of Experimental Results
The key difference between this set of protocols and the experimental set that preceded them [RFC5335] [RFC5336] [RFC5337] [RFC5504] [RFC5721] [RFC5738] [RFC5825] is that the earlier group provided a mechanism for in-transit downgrading of messages (described in detail in RFC 5504). That mechanism permitted, and essentially required, that each non-ASCII address be accompanied by an all-ASCII equivalent. That, in turn, raised security concerns associated with pairing of addresses that could not be authenticated. It also introduced the first incompatible change to Internet mail addressing in many years, raising concerns about interoperability issues if the new address forms "leaked" into legacy email implementations. After examining experience with the earlier, experimental, predecessors of these specifications, the working group that produced them concluded that the advantages of in-transit downgrading, were it feasible operationally, would be significant enough to overcome those concerns.
That turned out not to be the case, with interoperability problems among initial implementations. Prior to starting on the work that led to this set of specifications, the WG concluded that the combination of requirements and long-term implications of that earlier model were too complex to be satisfactory and that work should move ahead without it.
The other significant change to the protocols themselves is that the SMTPUTF8 keyword is now required as an SMTP client announcement if the extension is needed; in the experimental version, only the server announcement that an extended envelope and/or content were permitted was necessary.
7. Overview of Protocol Extensions and Changes
7.1. SMTP Extension for Internationalized Email Address
An SMTP extension, "SMTPUTF8", is specified as follows:
- Permits the use of UTF-8 strings in email addresses, both local parts and domain names.
- Permits the selective use of UTF-8 strings in email message headers (see Section 7.2).
- Requires that the server advertise the 8BITMIME extension [RFC6152] and that the client support 8-bit transmission so that header information can be transmitted without using a special content-transfer-encoding.
Some general principles affect the development decisions underlying this work.
- Email addresses enter subsystems (such as a user interface) that may perform charset conversions or other encoding changes. When the local part of the address includes characters outside the ASCII character repertoire, use of ASCII-compatible encoding (ACE) [RFC3492] [RFC5890] in the domain part is discouraged to promote consistent processing of characters throughout the address.
- An SMTP relay MUST
- Either recognize the format explicitly, agreeing to do so via an ESMTP option, or
- Reject the message or, if necessary, return a non-delivery notification message, so that the sender can make another plan.
- If the message cannot be forwarded because the next-hop system cannot accept the extension, it MUST be rejected or a non- delivery message MUST be generated and sent.
- In the interest of interoperability, charsets other than UTF-8 are prohibited in mail addresses and message headers being transmitted over the Internet. There is no practical way to identify multiple charsets properly with an extension similar to this without introducing great complexity.
Conformance to the group of standards specified here for email transport and delivery requires implementation of the SMTP extension specification and the UTF-8 header specification. If the system implements IMAP or POP, it MUST conform to the internationalized IMAP [RFC5738bis-IMAP] or POP [RFC5721bis-POP3] specifications respectively.
7.2. Transmission of Email Header Fields in UTF-8 Encoding
There are many places in MUAs or in a user presentation in which email addresses or domain names appear. Examples include the conventional "From:", "To:", or "Cc:" header fields; "Message-ID:" and "In-Reply-To:" header fields that normally contain domain names (but that may be a special case); and in message bodies. Each of these must be examined from an internationalization perspective. The user will expect to see mailbox and domain names in local characters, and to see them consistently. If non-obvious encodings, such as protocol-specific ACE variants, are used, the user will inevitably, if only occasionally, see them rather than "native" characters and will find that discomfiting or astonishing. Similarly, if different codings are used for mail transport and message bodies, the user is particularly likely to be surprised, if only as a consequence of the long-established "things leak" principle. The only practical way to avoid these sources of discomfort, in both the medium and the longer term, is to have the encodings used in transport be as similar to the encodings used in message headers and message bodies as possible.
When email local parts are internationalized, they SHOULD be accompanied by arrangements for the message headers to be in the fully internationalized form. That form SHOULD use UTF-8 rather than ASCII as the base character set for the contents of header fields (protocol elements such as the header field names themselves are unchanged and remain entirely in ASCII). For transition purposes and compatibility with legacy systems, this can be done by extending the traditional MIME encoding models for non-ASCII characters in headers [RFC2045] [RFC2231], but even these should be based on UTF-8, rather than other encodings, if at all possible [RFC6055]. However, the target is fully internationalized message headers, as discussed in [RFC6532] and not an extended and painful transition.
7.3. SMTP Service Extension for DSNs
The existing Delivery Status Notifications (DSNs) specification [RFC3461], which is a Draft Standard, is limited to ASCII text in the machine-readable portions of the protocol. "International Delivery and Disposition Notifications" [RFC6533] adds a new address type for international email addresses so an original recipient address with non-ASCII characters can be correctly preserved even after downgrading. If an SMTP server advertises both the SMTPUTF8 and the DSN extension, that server MUST implement internationalized DSNs including support for the ORCPT parameter specified in RFC 3461 [RFC3461].
8. Downgrading before and after SMTP Transactions
An important issue with these extensions is how to handle interactions between systems that support non-ASCII addresses and legacy systems that expect ASCII. There is, of course, no problem with ASCII-only systems sending to those that can handle internationalized forms because the ASCII forms are just a proper subset. But, when systems that support these extensions send mail, they MAY include non-ASCII addresses for senders, receivers, or both and might also provide non-ASCII header information other than addresses. If the extension is not supported by the first-hop system (i.e., the SMTP server accessed by the submission server acting as an SMTP client), message-originating systems SHOULD be prepared to either send conventional envelopes and message headers or to return the message to the originating user so the message may be manually downgraded to the traditional form, possibly using encoded words [RFC2047] in the message headers. Of course, such transformations imply that the originating user or system must have ASCII-only addresses available for all senders and recipients. Mechanisms by which such addresses may be found or identified are outside the scope of these specifications as are decisions about the design of originating systems such as whether any required transformations are made by the user, the originating MUA, or the submission server.
A somewhat more complex situation arises when the first-hop system supports these extensions but some subsequent server in the SMTP transmission chain does not. It is important to note that most cases of that situation with forward-pointing addresses will be the result of configuration errors: especially if it hosts non-ASCII addresses, a final delivery MTA that accepts these extensions SHOULD NOT be configured with lower-preference MX hosts that do not. When the only non-ASCII address being transmitted is backward-pointing (e.g., in an SMTP MAIL command), recipient configuration cannot help in general. On the other hand, alternate, all-ASCII addresses for senders are those most likely to be authoritatively known by the submission environment or the sender herself. Consequently, if an intermediate SMTP relay that requires these extensions then discovers that the next system in the chain does not support them, it will have little choice other than to reject or return the message.
As discussed above, downgrading to an ASCII-only form may occur before or during the initial message submission. It might also occur after the delivery to the final delivery MTA in order to accommodate message stores, IMAP or POP servers, or clients that have different capabilities than the delivery MTA. These cases are discussed in the subsections below.
8.1. Downgrading before or during Message Submission
The IETF has traditionally avoided specifying the precise behavior of MUAs to provide maximum flexibility in the associated user interfaces. The SMTP standard [RFC5321], Section 6.4, gives wide latitude to MUAs and submission servers as to what might be supplied by the user as long as the result conforms with "on the wire" standards once it is injected into the public Internet. In that tradition, the discussion in the remainder of Section 8 is provided as general guidance rather than normative requirements.
Messages that require these extensions will sometimes be transferred to a system that does not support these extensions; it is likely that the most common cases will involve the combination of ASCII-only forward-pointing addresses with a non-ASCII backward-pointing one. Until the extensions described here have been universally implemented in the Internet email environment, senders who prefer to use non- ASCII addresses (or raw UTF-8 characters in header fields), even when their intended recipients use and expect all-ASCII ones, will need to be especially careful about the error conditions that can arise. The risks are especially great in environments in which non-delivery messages (or other indications from submission servers) are routinely dropped or ignored.
Perhaps obviously, the most convenient time to find an ASCII address corresponding to an internationalized address is at the originating MUA or closely associated systems. This can occur either before the message is sent or after the internationalized form of the message is rejected. It is also the most convenient time to convert a message from the internationalized form into conventional ASCII form or to generate a non-delivery message to the sender if either is necessary. At that point, the user has a full range of choices available, including changing backward-pointing addresses, contacting the intended recipient out of band for an alternate address, consulting appropriate directories, arranging for translation of both addresses and message content into a different language, and so on. While it is natural to think of message downgrading as optimally being a fully automated process, we should not underestimate the capabilities of a user of at least moderate intelligence who wishes to communicate with another such user.
In this context, one can easily imagine modifications to message submission servers (as described in RFC 6409 [RFC6409]) so that they would perform downgrading operations or perhaps even upgrading ones. Such operations would permit receiving messages with one or more of the internationalization extensions discussed here and adapting the outgoing message, as needed, to respond to the delivery or next-hop environment the submission server encounters.
8.2. Downgrading or Other Processing after Final SMTP Delivery
When an email message is received by a final delivery MTA, it is usually stored in some form. Then it is retrieved either by software that reads the stored form directly or by client software via some email retrieval mechanisms such as POP or IMAP.
The SMTP extension described in Section 7.1 provides protection only in transport. It does not prevent MUAs and email retrieval mechanisms that have not been upgraded to understand internationalized addresses and UTF-8 message headers from accessing stored internationalized emails.
Since the final delivery MTA (or, to be more specific, its corresponding mail storage agent) cannot safely assume that agents accessing email storage will always be capable of handling the extensions proposed here, it MAY downgrade internationalized emails, specially identify messages that utilize these extensions, or both. If either or both of these actions were to be taken, the final delivery MTA SHOULD include a mechanism to preserve or recover the original internationalized forms without information loss. Preservation of that information is necessary to support access by SMTPUTF8-aware agents.
9. Downgrading in Transit
The base SMTP specification (Section 2.3.11 of RFC 5321 [RFC5321]) states that "due to a long history of problems when intermediate hosts have attempted to optimize transport by modifying them, the local-part MUST be interpreted and assigned semantics only by the host specified in the domain part of the address". This is not a new requirement; equivalent statements appeared in specifications in 2001 [RFC2821] and even in 1989 [RFC1123].
Adherence to this rule means that a downgrade mechanism that transforms the local part of an email address cannot be utilized in transit. It can only be applied at the endpoints, specifically by the MUA or submission server or by the final delivery MTA.
One of the reasons for this rule has to do with legacy email systems that embed mail routing information in the local part of the address field. Transforming the email address destroys such routing information. There is no way a server other than the final delivery server can know, for example, whether the local part of email@example.com is a route ("user" is reached via "foo") or simply a local address.
10. User Interface and Configuration Issues
Internationalization of addresses and message headers, especially in combination with variations on character coding that are inherent to Unicode, may make careful choices of addresses and careful configuration of servers and DNS records even more important than they are for traditional Internet email. It is likely that, as experience develops with the use of these protocols, it will be desirable to produce one or more additional documents that offer guidance for configuration and interfaces. A document that discusses issues with MUAs, especially with regard to downgrading, is expected to be developed. The subsections below address some other issues.
10.1. Choices of Mailbox Names and Unicode Normalization
It has long been the case that the email syntax permits choices about mailbox names that are unwise in practice, if one actually intends the mailboxes to be accessible to a broad range of senders. The most often cited examples involve the use of case-sensitivity and tricky quoting of embedded characters in mailbox local parts. These deliberately unusual constructions are permitted by the protocols, and servers are expected to support them. Although they can provide value in special cases, taking advantage of them is almost always bad practice unless the intent is to create some form of security by obscurity.
In the absence of these extensions, SMTP clients and servers are constrained to using only those addresses permitted by RFC 5321. The local parts of those addresses MAY be made up of any ASCII characters except the control characters that RFC 5321 prohibits, although some of them MUST be quoted as specified there. It is notable in an internationalization context that there is a long history on some systems of using overstruck ASCII characters (a character, a backspace, and another character) within a quoted string to approximate non-ASCII characters. This form of internationalization was permitted by RFC 821 [RFC0821] but is prohibited by RFC 5321 because it requires a backspace character (a prohibited C0 control). Because RFC 5321 (and its predecessor, RFC 2821) prohibit the use of this character in ASCII mailbox names and it is even more problematic (for canonicalization and normalization reasons) in non-ASCII strings, backspace MUST NOT appear in SMTPUTF8 mailbox names.
For the particular case of mailbox names that contain non-ASCII characters in the local part, domain part, or both, special attention MUST be paid to Unicode normalization [Unicode-UAX15], in part because Unicode strings may be normalized by other processes independent of what a mail protocol specifies (this is exactly analogous to what may happen with quoting and dequoting in traditional addresses). Consequently, the following principles are offered as advice to those who are selecting names for mailboxes:
- In general, it is wise to support addresses in Normalized form, using at least Normalization Form NFC. Except in circumstances in which NFKC would map characters together that the parties responsible for the destination mail server would prefer to be kept distinguishable, supporting the NFKC-conformant form would yield even more predictable behavior for the typical user.
- It will usually be wise to support other forms of the same local- part string, either as aliases or by normalization of strings reaching the delivery server: the sender should not be depended upon to send the strings in normalized form.
- Stated differently and in more specific terms, the rules of the protocol for local-part strings essentially provide that:
- Unnormalized strings are valid, but sufficiently bad practice that they may not work reliably on a global basis. Servers should not depend on clients to send normalized forms but should be aware that procedures on client machines outside the control of the MUA may cause normalized strings to be sent regardless of user intent.
- C0 (and presumably C1) controls (see The Unicode Standard [Unicode]) are prohibited, the first in RFC 5321 and the second by an obvious extension from it [RFC5198].
- Other kinds of punctuation, spaces, etc., are risky practice. Perhaps they will work, and SMTP receiver code is required to handle them without severe errors (even if such strings are not accepted in addresses to be delivered on that server), but creating dependencies on them in mailbox names that are chosen is usually a bad practice and may lead to interoperability problems.
11. Additional Issues
This section identifies issues that are not covered, or not covered comprehensively, as part of this set of specifications, but that will require ongoing review as part of deployment of email address and header internationalization.
11.1. Impact on URIs and IRIs
The mailto: schema [RFC6068], and the discussion of it in the Internationalized Resource Identifier (IRI) specification [RFC3987], may need to be modified when this work is completed and standardized.
11.2. Use of Email Addresses as Identifiers
There are a number of places in contemporary Internet usage in which email addresses are used as identifiers for individuals, including as identifiers to Web servers supporting some electronic commerce sites and in some X.509 certificates [RFC5280]. These documents do not address those uses, but it is reasonable to expect that some difficulties will be encountered when internationalized addresses are first used in those contexts, many of which cannot even handle the full range of addresses permitted today.
11.3. Encoded Words, Signed Messages, and Downgrading
One particular characteristic of the email format is its persistency: MUAs are expected to handle messages that were originally sent decades ago and not just those delivered seconds ago. As such, MUAs and mail filtering software, such as that specified in Sieve [RFC5228], will need to continue to accept and decode header fields that use the "encoded word" mechanism [RFC2047] to accommodate non- ASCII characters in some header fields. While extensions to both POP3 [RFC1939] and IMAP [RFC3501] have been defined that include automatic upgrading of messages that carry non-ASCII information in encoded form -- including RFC 2047 decoding -- of messages by the POP3 [RFC5721bis-POP3] or IMAP [RFC5738bis-IMAP] server, there are message structures and MIME content-types for which that cannot be done or where the change would have unacceptable side effects.
For example, message parts that are cryptographically signed, using e.g., S/MIME [RFC5751] or Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) [RFC3156], cannot be upgraded from the RFC 2047 form to normal UTF-8 characters without breaking the signature. Similarly, message parts that are encrypted may contain, when decrypted, header fields that use the RFC 2047 encoding; such messages cannot be 'fully' upgraded without access to cryptographic keys.
Similar issues may arise if messages are signed and then subsequently downgraded, e.g., as discussed in Section 8.1, and then an attempt is made to upgrade them to the original form and then verify the signatures. Even the very subtle changes that may result from algorithms to downgrade and then upgrade again may be sufficient to invalidate the signatures if they impact either the primary or MIME body part headers. When signatures are present, downgrading must be performed with extreme care if at all.
11.4. Other Uses of Local Parts
Local parts are sometimes used to construct domain labels, e.g., the local part "user" in the address firstname.lastname@example.org could be converted into a host name user.domain.example with its Web space at <http://user.domain.example> and the catch-all addresses email@example.com.
Such schemes are obviously limited by, among other things, the SMTP rules for domain names, and will not work without further restrictions for other local parts. Whether those limitations are relevant to these specifications is an open question. It may be simply another case of the considerable flexibility accorded to delivery MTAs in determining the mailbox names they will accept and how they are interpreted.
11.5. Non-Standard Encapsulation Formats
Some applications use formats similar to the application/mbox format [RFC4155] instead of the message/digest form defined in RFC 2046, Section 5.1.5 [RFC2046] to transfer multiple messages as single units. Insofar as such applications assume that all stored messages use the message/rfc822 format described in RFC 2046, Section 5.2.1 [RFC2046] with ASCII message headers, they are not ready for the extensions specified in this series of documents, and special measures may be needed to properly detect and process them.
12. Key Changes from the Experimental Protocols and Framework
The original framework for internationalized email addresses and headers was described in RFC 4952 and a subsequent set of experimental protocol documents. Those relationships are described in Section 3. The key architectural difference between the experimental specifications and this newer set is that the earlier specifications supported in-transit downgrading. Those mechanisms included the definition of syntax and functions to support passing alternate, all-ASCII addresses with the non-ASCII ones as well as special headers to indicate the downgraded status of messages. Those features were eliminated after experimentation indicated that they were more complex and less necessary than had been assumed earlier. Those issues are described in more detail in Sections 6 and 9.
13. Security Considerations
Any expansion of permitted characters and encoding forms in email addresses raises some risks. There have been discussions on so called "IDN-spoofing" or "IDN homograph attacks". These attacks allow an attacker (or "phisher") to spoof the domain or URLs of businesses or other entities. The same kind of attack is also possible on the local part of internationalized email addresses. It should be noted that the proposed fix involving forcing all displayed elements into normalized lowercase works for domain names in URLs, but not for email local parts since those are case sensitive.
Since email addresses are often transcribed from business cards and notes on paper, they are subject to problems arising from confusable characters (see [RFC4690]). These problems are somewhat reduced if the domain associated with the mailbox is unambiguous and supports a relatively small number of mailboxes whose names follow local system conventions. They are increased with very large mail systems in which users can freely select their own addresses.
The internationalization of email addresses and message headers must not leave the Internet less secure than it is without the required extensions. The requirements and mechanisms documented in this set of specifications do not, in general, raise any new security issues.
They do require a review of issues associated with confusable characters -- a topic that is being explored thoroughly elsewhere (see, e.g., RFC 4690 [RFC4690]) -- and, potentially, some issues with UTF-8 normalization, discussed in RFC 3629 [RFC3629], and other transformations. Normalization and other issues associated with transformations and standard forms are also part of the subject of work described elsewhere [RFC5198] [RFC5893] [RFC6055].
Some issues specifically related to internationalized addresses and message headers are discussed in more detail in the other documents in this set. However, in particular, caution should be taken that any "downgrading" mechanism, or use of downgraded addresses, does not inappropriately assume authenticated bindings between the internationalized and ASCII addresses. This potential problem can be mitigated somewhat by enforcing the expectation that most or all such transformations will be performed prior to final delivery by systems that are presumed to be under the administrative control of the sending user (as opposed to being performed in transit by entities that are not under the administrative control of the sending user).
The new UTF-8 header and message formats might also raise, or aggravate, another known issue. If the model creates new forms of an 'invalid' or 'malformed' message, then a new email attack is created: in an effort to be robust, some or most agents will accept such messages and interpret them as if they were well-formed. If a filter interprets such a message differently than the MUA used by the recipient, then it may be possible to create a message that appears acceptable under the filter's interpretation but that should be rejected under the interpretation given to it by that MUA. Such attacks already have occurred for existing messages and encoding layers, e.g., invalid MIME syntax, invalid HTML markup, and invalid coding of particular image types.
In addition, email addresses are used in many contexts other than sending mail, such as for identifiers under various circumstances (see Section 11.2). Each of those contexts will need to be evaluated, in turn, to determine whether the use of non-ASCII forms is appropriate and what particular issues they raise.
This work will clearly affect any systems or mechanisms that are dependent on digital signatures or similar integrity protection for email message headers (see also the discussion in Section 11.3). Many conventional uses of PGP and S/MIME are not affected since they are used to sign body parts but not message headers. On the other hand, the developing work on DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) [RFC5863] will eventually need to consider this work, and vice versa: while this specification does not address or solve the issues raised by DKIM and other signed header mechanisms, the issues will have to be coordinated and resolved eventually if the two sets of protocols are to coexist. In addition, to the degree to which email addresses appear in PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) certificates [RFC5280], standards addressing such certificates will need to be upgraded to address these internationalized addresses. Those upgrades will need to address questions of spoofing by look-alikes of the addresses themselves.
This document is an update to, and derived from, RFC 4952. This document would have been impossible without the work and contributions acknowledged in it. The present document benefited significantly from discussions in the IETF EAI working group and elsewhere after RFC 4952 was published, especially discussions about the experimental versions of other documents in the internationalized email collection, and from RFC errata on RFC 4952 itself.
Special thanks are due to Ernie Dainow for careful reviews and suggested text in this version and to several IESG members for a careful review and specific suggestions.
15.1. Normative References
[ASCII] American National Standards Institute (formerly United States of America Standards Institute), "USA Code for Information Interchange", ANSI X3.4-1968, 1968.
ANSI X3.4-1968 has been replaced by newer versions with slight modifications, but the 1968 version remains definitive for the Internet.
[RFC2119] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997. [RFC3629] Yergeau, F., "UTF-8, a transformation format of ISO 10646", STD 63, RFC 3629, November 2003. [RFC5321] Klensin, J., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol", RFC 5321, October 2008. [RFC5322] Resnick, P., Ed., "Internet Message Format", RFC 5322, October 2008. [RFC5890] Klensin, J., "Internationalized Domain Names for Applications (IDNA): Definitions and Document Framework", RFC 5890, August 2010. [RFC6152] Klensin, J., Freed, N., Rose, M., and D. Crocker, "SMTP Service Extension for 8-bit MIME Transport", STD 71, RFC 6152, March 2011. [RFC6531] Yao, J. and W. Mao, "SMTP Extension for Internationalized Email Address", RFC 6531, February 2012. [RFC6532] Yang, A., Steele, S., and N. Freed, "Internationalized Email Headers", RFC 6532, February 2012. [RFC6533] Hansen, T., Newman, C., and A. Melnikov, "Internationalized Delivery Status and Disposition Notifications", RFC 6533, February 2012.
15.2. Informative References
Fujiwara, K., "Post-delivery Message Downgrading for Internationalized Email Messages", Work in Progress, October 2011. [RFC0821] Postel, J., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol", STD 10, RFC 821, August 1982. [RFC1123] Braden, R., "Requirements for Internet Hosts - Application and Support", STD 3, RFC 1123, October 1989. [RFC1939] Myers, J. and M. Rose, "Post Office Protocol - Version 3", STD 53, RFC 1939, May 1996. [RFC2045] Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) Part One: Format of Internet Message Bodies", RFC 2045, November 1996. [RFC2046] Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) Part Two: Media Types", RFC 2046, November 1996. [RFC2047] Moore, K., "MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) Part Three: Message Header Extensions for Non-ASCII Text", RFC 2047, November 1996. [RFC2231] Freed, N. and K. Moore, "MIME Parameter Value and Encoded Word Extensions: Character Sets, Languages, and Continuations", RFC 2231, November 1997. [RFC2821] Klensin, J., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol", RFC 2821, April 2001. [RFC3156] Elkins, M., Del Torto, D., Levien, R., and T. Roessler, "MIME Security with OpenPGP", RFC 3156, August 2001. [RFC3461] Moore, K., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) Service Extension for Delivery Status Notifications (DSNs)", RFC 3461, January 2003. [RFC3464] Moore, K. and G. Vaudreuil, "An Extensible Message Format for Delivery Status Notifications", RFC 3464, January 2003. [RFC3492] Costello, A., "Punycode: A Bootstring encoding of Unicode for Internationalized Domain Names in Applications (IDNA)", RFC 3492, March 2003. [RFC3501] Crispin, M., "INTERNET MESSAGE ACCESS PROTOCOL - VERSION 4rev1", RFC 3501, March 2003. [RFC3987] Duerst, M. and M. Suignard, "Internationalized Resource Identifiers (IRIs)", RFC 3987, January 2005. [RFC4155] Hall, E., "The application/mbox Media Type", RFC 4155, September 2005. [RFC4690] Klensin, J., Faltstrom, P., Karp, C., and IAB, "Review and Recommendations for Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs)", RFC 4690, September 2006. [RFC4952] Klensin, J. and Y. Ko, "Overview and Framework for Internationalized Email", RFC 4952, July 2007. [RFC5198] Klensin, J. and M. Padlipsky, "Unicode Format for Network Interchange", RFC 5198, March 2008. [RFC5228] Guenther, P. and T. Showalter, "Sieve: An Email Filtering Language", RFC 5228, January 2008. [RFC5280] Cooper, D., Santesson, S., Farrell, S., Boeyen, S., Housley, R., and W. Polk, "Internet X.509 Public Key Infrastructure Certificate and Certificate Revocation List (CRL) Profile", RFC 5280, May 2008. [RFC5335] Yang, A., "Internationalized Email Headers", RFC 5335, September 2008. [RFC5336] Yao, J. and W. Mao, "SMTP Extension for Internationalized Email Addresses", RFC 5336, September 2008. [RFC5337] Newman, C. and A. Melnikov, "Internationalized Delivery Status and Disposition Notifications", RFC 5337, September 2008. [RFC5504] Fujiwara, K. and Y. Yoneya, "Downgrading Mechanism for Email Address Internationalization", RFC 5504, March 2009. [RFC5721] Gellens, R. and C. Newman, "POP3 Support for UTF-8", RFC 5721, February 2010.
Gellens, R., Newman, C., Yao, J., and K. Fujiwara, "POP3 Support for UTF-8", Work in Progress, November 2011. [RFC5738] Resnick, P. and C. Newman, "IMAP Support for UTF-8", RFC 5738, March 2010.
Resnick, P., Ed., Newman, C., Ed., and S. Shen, Ed., "IMAP Support for UTF-8", Work in Progress, December 2011. [RFC5751] Ramsdell, B. and S. Turner, "Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME) Version 3.2 Message Specification", RFC 5751, January 2010. [RFC5825] Fujiwara, K. and B. Leiba, "Displaying Downgraded Messages for Email Address Internationalization", RFC 5825, April 2010. [RFC5863] Hansen, T., Siegel, E., Hallam-Baker, P., and D. Crocker, "DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) Development, Deployment, and Operations", RFC 5863, May 2010. [RFC5891] Klensin, J., "Internationalized Domain Names in Applications (IDNA): Protocol", RFC 5891, August 2010. [RFC5892] Faltstrom, P., "The Unicode Code Points and Internationalized Domain Names for Applications (IDNA)", RFC 5892, August 2010. [RFC5893] Alvestrand, H. and C. Karp, "Right-to-Left Scripts for Internationalized Domain Names for Applications (IDNA)", RFC 5893, August 2010. [RFC5894] Klensin, J., "Internationalized Domain Names for Applications (IDNA): Background, Explanation, and Rationale", RFC 5894, August 2010. [RFC5983] Gellens, R., "Mailing Lists and Internationalized Email Addresses", RFC 5983, October 2010.
Levine, J. and R. Gellens, "Mailing Lists and UTF-8 Addresses", Work in Progress, December 2011. [RFC6055] Thaler, D., Klensin, J., and S. Cheshire, "IAB Thoughts on Encodings for Internationalized Domain Names", RFC 6055, February 2011. [RFC6068] Duerst, M., Masinter, L., and J. Zawinski, "The 'mailto' URI Scheme", RFC 6068, October 2010. [RFC6409] Gellens, R. and J. Klensin, "Message Submission for Mail", STD 72, RFC 6409, November 2011. [Unicode] The Unicode Consortium. The Unicode Standard, Version 6.0.0, defined by:, "The Unicode Standard, Version 6.0.0", (Mountain View, CA: The Unicode Consortium, 2011. ISBN 978-1-936213-01-6)., <http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode6.0.0/>.
The Unicode Consortium, "Unicode Standard Annex #15:
Unicode Normalization Forms", September 2010,
John C KLENSIN 1770 Massachusetts Ave, #322 Cambridge, MA 02140 USA Phone: +1 617 491 5735 EMail: firstname.lastname@example.org YangWoo KO 112-202 Malgeunachim APT. Nae-dong Seo-gu, Daejeon 302-981 Republic of Korea