The Use of URLs as Meta-Syntax for Core Mail List Commands and their Transport through Message Header Fields
draft-baer-listspec-01

Versions: 00 01 rfc2369                                  Standards Track
INTERNET-DRAFT                                          Grant Neufeld
draft-baer-listspec-01.txt                      independent developer
Expires February 18, 1998                              Joshua D. Baer
                                                 SkyWeyr Technologies
                                                      August 18, 1997


       The Use of URLs as Meta-Syntax for Core Mail List Commands
           and their Transport through Message Header Fields

Status of this Memo

      This document is an Internet-Draft.  Internet-Drafts are working
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Abstract

   The mailing list command specification header fields are a simple set
   of fields to be added to email messages sent by email distribution
   lists. Each field contains a URL (usually mailto) locating the
   relevant information or performing the command directly.  The three
   core header fields described in this document are List-Help,
   List-Subscribe, and List-Unsubscribe.

   There are three other header fields described here which, although
   not as widely applicable, will have utility for a sufficient number
   of mailing lists to justify their formalization here. These are
   List-Post, List-Owner and List-Archive.

   By including these header fields, mail clients can provide automated
   tools for performing these functions.  This could take the form of a
   menu item, push button, or other user interface element.  The intent
   is to simplify the user experience, providing a common interface to
   the often cryptic and varied mailing list manager commands.







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1. Introduction

   This is a proposal for additional header fields to be added to email
   messages sent by email distribution lists.  The content of each new
   field is a URL - usually mailto or http, with mailto generally
   taking precedence - locating the relevant information or performing
   the command directly.

   Implementing these fields will be optional.  Significant
   functionality and convenience can be gained by including them,
   however.  Many list managers, especially as the proposal first gains
   acceptance, may only choose to implement one or two of the fields.
   The List-Help field is the most useful individual field since it
   provides an access point to detailed user support information, and
   accommodates almost all existing list managers command sets.  The
   List-Subscribe and List-Unsubscribe fields are also very useful, but
   cannot describe some list manager syntaxes at this time (those which
   require variable substitution).  See appendix A.5 for an explanation.

   The description of command syntax provided by the fields can be used
   by mail client applications to provide simplified and consistent user
   access to email distribution list functions.  This could take the
   form of menu items, push buttons, or other user interface elements.
   The intent is to simplify the user experience, providing a common
   interface to the often cryptic and varied mailing list manager
   commands.

   Consideration has been given to avoiding the creation of too many
   fields, while at the same time avoiding the overloading of
   individual fields and keeping the syntax clear and simple.


2. The Command Syntax

   The contents of the list header fields consist of angle-bracket
   ('<', '>') enclosed URLs, with internal whitespace being ignored.

   A list of multiple, alternate, URLs may be specified by a comma-
   separated list of angle-bracket enclosed URLs. The URLs have
   precedence from left to right. The client application will use the
   leftmost protocol that it supports, or knows how to access by a
   separate application. By this mechanism, protocols like http may be
   specified while still providing the basic mailto support for those
   clients who do not have access to non-mail protocols. It is
   recommended that, at minimum, a mailto URL be provided wherever
   possible.






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   The use of URLs allows for the use of the syntax with existing URL
   supporting applications.  As the standard for URLs is extended, the
   list header fields will gain the benefit of those extensions.
   Additionally, the use of URLs provides access to multiple transport
   protocols (such as ftp and http) although it is expected that the
   "mailto" protocol will be the focus of most use of the list header
   fields. Use of non-mailto protocols should be considered in light of
   those users who do not have access to the specified mechanism (those
   who only have email - no web access).

   Command syntaxes requiring variable fields to be set by the client
   (such as including the user's email address within a command) are not
   supported by this implementation at this time.  However, systems
   using such syntaxes may still take advantage of the List-Help field
   to provide the user with detailed instructions as needed or -
   perhaps more usefully - provide access to some form of structured
   command interface such as a web based form.

   The additional complications of supporting variable fields within the
   command syntax was determined to be too difficult to support at this
   stage and would compromise the likelihood of implementation by
   software authors.

   To allow for future extension, client applications must follow the
   following guidelines for handling the contents of the header fields
   described in this document:

   1) If the content of the field (following any leading whitespace)
      begins with any character other than the opening angle bracket
      '<', the field should be ignored.
   2) Any characters following an angle bracket enclosed URL are to be
      ignored, unless a comma is the first character after the closing
      angle bracket.
   3) If a sub-item (comma-separated item) within the field is not an
      angle-bracket enclosed URL, the remainder of the field (the
      current, and all subsequent, sub-items) is to be ignored.


3. The List Header Fields

   This document presents header fields which will provide the command
   syntax description for the 'core' and key secondary functions of most
   email distribution lists.  The fields implemented on a given list
   should be included on all posts to the list, and on other messages
   where the message clearly applies to one distinct list. Only one
   field of each type should be present in any given message, to avoid
   any confusion on the part of the mail client.





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3.1. List-Help

   The List-Help field is the most important of the header fields
   described in this document. It would be acceptable for a list manager
   to include only this field, since by definition it should direct the
   user to complete instructions for all other commands.  Typically, the
   URL specified would request the help file for the list or a web page
   with list instructions. Of all the header fields, this one is the
   most likely candidate to include an http URL, since a web page can be
   used to provide a lot more information about the list, as well as a
   form interface for command access.

   Examples:

    List-Help: <mailto:list@host.com?subject=help>
    List-Help: <mailto:list-manager@host.com?body=info>
    List-Help: <mailto:list-info@host.com>
    List-Help: <http://www.host.com/list/>, <mailto:list-info@host.com>
    List-Help: <ftp://ftp.host.com/list.txt>,
        <mailto:list@host.com?subject=help>

3.2. List-Unsubscribe

   The List-Unsubscribe field describes the command (preferably using
   mail) to directly unsubscribe the user (removing them from the list).

   Examples:

    List-Unsubscribe: <mailto:list@host.com?subject=unsubscribe>
    List-Unsubscribe:
        <mailto:list-manager@host.com?body=unsubscribe%20list>
    List-Unsubscribe: <mailto:list-off@host.com>
    List-Unsubscribe: <http://www.host.com/list.cgi?cmd=unsub&lst=list>,
        <mailto:list-request@host.com?subject=unsubscribe>

3.3. List-Subscribe

   The List-Subscribe field describes the command (preferably using
   mail) to directly subscribe the user (request addition to the list).

   Examples:

    List-Subscribe: <mailto:list@host.com?subject=subscribe>
    List-Subscribe: <mailto:list-request@host.com?subject=subscribe>
    List-Subscribe:
        <mailto:list-manager@host.com?body=subscribe%20list>
    List-Subscribe: <mailto:list-on@host.com>
    List-Subscribe: <http://www.host.com/list.cgi?cmd=sub&lst=list>,
        <mailto:list-manager@host.com?body=subscribe%20list>



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3.4. List-Post

   The List-Post field describes the method for posting to the list.
   This is typically the address of the list, but may be a moderator, or
   potentially some other form of submission.

   Examples:

    List-Post: <mailto:list@host.com>
    List-Post: <mailto:moderator@host.com>
    List-Post: <mailto:moderator@host.com?subject=list%20posting>

3.5. List-Owner

   The List-Owner field identifies the path to contact a human
   administrator for the list. The address may be that of a moderator,
   mail system administrator, or any other person who can handle user
   contact for the list. There is no need to specify List-Owner if it is
   the same person as the mail system administrator (postmaster).

   Examples:

    List-Owner: <mailto:listmom@host.com>
    List-Owner: <mailto:grant@foo.bar>
    List-Owner: <mailto:josh@foo.bar?Subject=list>

3.6. List-Archive

   The List-Archive field describes the method for accessing archives
   for the list.

   Examples:

    List-Archive: <mailto:archive@host.com?subject=index%20list>
    List-Archive: <ftp://ftp.host.com/pub/list/archive/>
    List-Archive: <http://www.host.com/list/archive/>
















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4. Security Considerations

   There are very few new security concerns generated with this
   proposal.  Message headers are an existing standard, designed to
   easily accommodate new types. There may be concern with multiple
   fields being inserted or headers being forged, but these are problems
   inherent in Internet email, not specific to the protocol described in
   this document. Further, the implications are relatively harmless.

   Mail list processors should not allow any user-originated list header
   fields to pass through to their lists, lest they confuse the user and
   have the potential to create security problems.

   On the client side, there may be some concern with posts or commands
   being sent in error.  It is required that the user have a chance to
   confirm any action before it is executed.  In the case of mailto, it
   may be appropriate to create the correctly formatted message without
   sending it, allowing the user to see exactly what is happening and
   giving the user the ability to stop the message before it is sent.

   Mail client applications should not support list header field URLs
   which could compromise the security of the user's system. This
   includes the "file://" URL type which could potentially be used to
   trigger the execution of a local application on some user systems.


5. Acknowledgements

   The participants of the ListMom-Talk, List-Managers, MIDA-Mail and
   List-Header mailing lists contributed much to the formation and
   structure of this document.

   Keith Moore <moore@cs.utk.edu> and Christopher Allen
   <ChristopherA@consensus.com> provided guidance on the standards
   process.

















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Appendix

A. Background Discussion

   This proposal arose from discussions started on the ListMom-Talk
   Discussion List [5].  When the discussion reached a sufficient level,
   a separate list was formed for discussing this proposal, the List
   Headers Mail List [4] for deeper discussion.  We have included edited
   excerpts from that discussion here, in order to show some of the
   alternatives examined and reasons for our decisions.

A.1. Multiple header fields vs. a single header field

   Use of a single header field for transporting command meta-syntax was
   rejected for a number of reasons.

   Such a field would require the creation of a new meta-syntax in
   order to describe the list commands (as opposed to the use of the
   widely deployed URL syntax which was chosen for this implementation).
   Every additional layer of complexity and newness reduces the
   likelihood of actual implementation because it will require
   additional work to support.  Also, by using the existing URL syntax,
   we can profit from the end users' knowledge of that syntax and
   ability to use it even if their client applications do not support
   the list header fields.

   Restricting the transport of meta-syntax to the use of a single
   header field also introduces complications with header field size
   limitations.  Most individual commands can easily be described in a
   single line, but describing a multitude of commands can take up many
   lines in the field and runs a greater risk of being modified by an
   existing server on route.

   The client implementation is also easier with multiple fields, since
   each command can be supported and implemented individually,
   completely independent of the others.  Thus, some list managers or
   mail clients can choose to implement a subset of the fields based on
   the specific needs of their individual lists.

   Finally, the format described in this document is simple and well
   recognized, which reduces the chances of errors in implementation and
   parsing.










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A.2. URLs vs. parameter lists

   URLs are already an established syntax which is flexible,
   well-defined, and in wide spread use.  As its definition matures and
   expands, the abilities of the list fields will grow as well, without
   requiring modification of this proposal.  URLs are well prepared to
   handle future protocols and developments, and can easily describe the
   different existing access protocols such as mailto, http and ftp.

   Many clients already have functionality for recognizing, parsing, and
   evaluating URLs, either internally or by passing the request to a
   helper application.  This makes implementation easier and more
   realistic.  As an example, this existing support for URL parsing
   allowed us to add prototype list header functionality to existing
   mail clients (Eudora and Emailer for the Macintosh) without modifying
   their source code.

A.3. Why not just create a standard command language?

   A standard command language, supported by all email list services,
   would go a long way to reducing the problems of list access that
   currently plague existing services.  It would reduce the amount of
   learning required by end users and allow for a number of common
   support tools to be developed.

   However, such standardization does pose problems in the areas of
   multi-lingual support and the custom needs of individual mailing
   lists. The development of such a standard is also expected to be met
   with a slow adoption rate by software developers and list service
   providers.

   These points do not preclude the development of such a standard (in
   fact, it would suggest that we should start sooner rather than
   later), but we do need a solution that can be widely supported by the
   current list services.

   We can support most existing list manager command syntaxes without a
   standard command language.  By using URLs, we allow alternate access
   methods a standard command language probably wouldn't enable, such as
   web based control.

   Finally, client support for a standard command language is not at all
   clear or necessarily simple to implement.  The variety and large
   number of commands existing today would require complicated user
   interfaces which could be confusing and difficult to implement.  By
   restricting this proposal to the core functions, the client
   implementation is much simpler, which significantly increases the
   likelihood of implementation (as evidenced by the support already
   announced by a number of client and server application authors).



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A.4. Internationalization

   Multilingual support is up to the URL standard.  If URLs support it,
   this proposal supports.  This is another advantage of using URLs as
   the building blocks for the list header fields.

A.5. Variable Substitution

   Variables would allow this proposal to accommodate pretty much every
   existing list manager.  However, it would immeasurably increase the
   complexity of the entire proposal, and possibly involve redefining
   the URL standard, or force us to use something more complicated (and
   hence more difficult to implement) than URLs to describe the command
   syntax.

   Parameters would either have to be mandatory (i.e. the user agent
   doesn't submit the message if it doesn't know what text to
   substitute) or you need a way to say "if you know this parameter, add
   its text here; otherwise, do this" where "this" is either: (a)
   substitute a constant string, or (b) fail.

   The reason you would want a facility like this is because some list
   server applications insist on having certain parameters like users'
   names, which the user agent might or might not know.  e.g. listserv
   insists on having a first name and a last name if you supply either
   one.

   Which could lead to something like the UNIX shell syntax, where
   ${foo-bar} means substitute the value of parameter "foo" if "foo" is
   defined, else substitute the string "bar".  Perhaps $foo would mean
   "substitute the value of parameter foo if it is defined, else
   substitute the empty string"

   This all seems far too complicated for the gains involved, especially
   since the use of variables can often be avoided.

   The use of variables in the command syntaxes of list services appears
   to be lessening and does not, in any case, apply to all commands.
   While the unsubscribe and subscribe command header fields may not be
   usable by those systems which require the use of variables, the help
   field will still provide end users with a consistent point of access
   through which they can get support for their use of the list.










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A.6. Why not use a specialized MIME part instead of header fields?

   MIME parts were considered, but because most mail clients currently
   either don't support MIME or are not equipped to handle such
   specialized parts - such an implementation would result in problems
   for end users.  It is also not as easy for many list servers to
   implement MIME as it is to implement new header fields.

   However, we are looking at the design of a MIME part to more fully
   describe list command syntax, as well as trying to find ways to get
   it supported by the applicable software.

A.7. Why include a Subscribe command?

   Subscribe and Unsubscribe are the key commands needed by almost every
   list. Other commands, such as digest mode, are not as widely
   supported.

   Additionally, users who have unsubscribed (before going on vacation,
   or for whatever other reason) may want to resubscribe to a list.  Or,
   a message may be forwarded/bounced from a subscriber to a
   non-subscriber.  Or, the user may change addresses and want to
   subscribe from their new address. Having the List-Subscribe field
   available could certainly help in all these cases.

A.8. The Dangers of Header Bloat

   At what point are there just too many header fields?  It really
   varies on a list by list basis.  On some lists, the majority of users
   will never be aware of a field unless the client software provides
   some alternative user interface to it (akin to the Reply-To field).
   On others, the users will often see the header fields of messages and
   would be able to recognize the function of the URLs contained within.

   The flexibility afforded by the protocol described in this document
   (in that the header fields may be individually implemented as deemed
   appropriate) provides list administrators with sufficient 'room to
   maneuver' to meet their individual needs.


B. Client Implementation

B.1. Guidelines

   For 'mailto' URL based commands, mail client applications are advised
   to try to provide specialized feedback (such as presenting a dialog
   or alert), instead of the actual command email message, asking for
   command confirmation from the user.  The feedback should identify the
   message destination and command within a more descriptive
   explanation.  For example:


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     "Do you want to send the unsubscription command 'unsubscribe
      somelist' to 'somelist-request@some.host.com'?
      Sending the command will result in your removal from the
      associated list."

   If the user has multiple email addresses supported by the mail
   client, the client application should prompt the user for which
   address to use when subscribing or performing some other action where
   the address to use cannot be specifically determined.  When
   unsubscribing or such, the address that is subscribed should be used,
   unless that is not known by the application and cannot be determined
   from the message headers.

B.2. Implementation Options

   The following implementation possibilities are suggested here to give
   some idea as to why these new header fields will be useful, and how
   they could be supported.  Prototype menu items and floating pallettes
   have already been implemented in more than one mail client.

   In most cases, it may be helpful to disable the commands when not
   applicable to the currently selected message.

B.2.1. Key combinations and command lines

   On text based systems which utilize command lines or key
   combinations, each field could be implemented as a separate command.
   Thus one combination would subscribe the user, another would
   unsubscribe, a third request help, etc.  The commands would only be
   available on messages containing the list header fields.

B.2.2. Menu items

   On graphical systems which have menus, these commands could take the
   form of a menu or sub-menu of items.  For example, a "Lists" menu
   might appear when viewing messages containing the header fields, with
   items named "Subscribe", "Unsubscribe", "Get Help", "Post Message to
   List", "Contact List Owner" and "Access List Archive".  This menu
   could be disabled when not applicable to the current message or
   disappear entirely.

B.2.3. Push Buttons and Pallettes

   On graphical window systems, buttons could be placed in the window of
   the message, a toolbar, or in a floating pallette of their own.  Each
   button could correspond to a command, with names "Subscribe",
   "Unsubscribe", "Get Help", "Post to List", "List Owner" and
   "Archive".  These buttons or pallettes could be disabled when not
   applicable to the current message or disappear entirely.



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B.2.4 Feedback to the User

   When putting up a dialog (or other feedback element) the client
   application may find it useful to include an option for the user to
   review (and possibly modify) the message before it is sent. The
   application may also find it useful to provide a link to more
   detailed context-sensitive assistance about mail list access in
   general.


References

  [1] David H. Crocker, "Standard for the Format of ARPA
      Internet Text Messages" RFC 822, August 1982.
      <URL:ftp://ftp.internic.net/rfc/rfc822.txt>

  [2] P. Hoffman and L. Masinter, "The mailto URL scheme"
      'work in progress' January 1997. <URL:ftp://ietf.org/
      internet-drafts/draft-hoffman-mailto-url-01.txt>

  [3] T. Berners-Lee, L. Masinter and M. McCahill,
      "Uniform Resource Locators (URL)" RFC 1738, December 1994.
      <URL:ftp://ftp.internic.net/rfc/rfc1738.txt>

  [4] "List-Header" Mail list. list-header@arpp.carleton.ca
      <URL:http://arpp.carleton.ca/listspec/mail/>
      <URL:http://arpp.carleton.ca/listspec/>

  [5] "ListMom-Talk" Mail list. listmom-talk@skyweyr.com
      <URL:http://cgi.skyweyr.com/ListMom.Home>


Editors' addresses

Joshua D. Baer
Box 273
4902 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3799
USA

Email: josh@skyweyr.com

Grant Neufeld
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada
Tel: 613-237-1161

Email: grant@acm.org


This document expires February 18, 1998

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