Skip to main content

Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses
RFC 6783

Document Type RFC - Informational (November 2012)
Obsoletes RFC 5983
Authors John R. Levine , Randall Gellens
Last updated 2015-10-14
RFC stream Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Additional resources Mailing list discussion
IESG Responsible AD Pete Resnick
Send notices to (None)
RFC 6783
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)                         J. Levine
Request for Comments: 6783                          Taughannock Networks
Obsoletes: 5983                                               R. Gellens
Category: Informational                            Qualcomm Incorporated
ISSN: 2070-1721                                            November 2012

                 Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses


   This document describes considerations for mailing lists with the
   introduction of non-ASCII UTF-8 email addresses.  It outlines some
   possible scenarios for handling lists with mixtures of non-ASCII and
   traditional addresses but does not specify protocol changes or offer
   implementation or deployment advice.

Status of This Memo

   This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is
   published for informational purposes.

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

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2012 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

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

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 1]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
     1.1.  Mailing List Header Additions and Modifications . . . . . . 3
     1.2.  Non-ASCII Email Addresses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
   2.  Scenarios Involving Mailing Lists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
     2.1.  Fully SMTPUTF8 Lists  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
     2.2.  Mixed SMTPUTF8 and ASCII Lists  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
     2.3.  SMTP Issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
   3.  List Headers  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
     3.1.  SMTPUTF8 List Headers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
     3.2.  Downgrading List Headers  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
     3.3.  Subscribers' Addresses in Downgraded Headers  . . . . . . . 8
   4.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
   5.  References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
     5.1.  Normative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
     5.2.  Informative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

1.  Introduction

   This document describes considerations for mailing lists with the
   introduction of non-ASCII UTF-8 email addresses.  The usage of such
   addresses is described in [RFC6530].

   Mailing lists are an important part of email usage and collaborative
   communications.  The introduction of internationalized email
   addresses affects mailing lists in three main areas: (1) transport
   (receiving and sending messages); (2) message headers of received and
   retransmitted messages; and (3) mailing list operational policies.

   A mailing list is a mechanism that distributes a message to multiple
   recipients when the originator sends it to a single address.  An
   agent, usually software rather than a person, at that single address
   receives the message and then causes the message to be redistributed
   to a list of recipients.  This agent usually sets the envelope return
   address (henceforth called the "bounce address") of the redistributed
   message to a different address from that of the original message.
   Using a different bounce address directs error and other
   automatically generated messages to an error-handling address
   associated with the mailing list.  This sends error and other
   automatic messages to the list agent, which can often do something
   useful with them, rather than to the original sender, who typically
   doesn't control the list and hence can't do anything about them.

   In most cases, the mailing list agent redistributes a received
   message to its subscribers as a new message, that is, conceptually it
   uses message submission [RFC6409] (as did the sender of the original
   message).  The exception, where the mailing list is not managed by a

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 2]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

   separate agent that receives and redistributes messages in separate
   transactions but is implemented by an expansion step within an SMTP
   transaction where one local address expands to multiple local or non-
   local addresses, is not addressed by this document.

1.1.  Mailing List Header Additions and Modifications

   Some list agents alter message header fields, while others do not.  A
   number of standardized list-related header fields have been defined,
   and many lists add one or more of these headers.  Separate from these
   standardized list-specific header fields, and despite a history of
   interoperability problems from doing so, some lists alter or add
   header fields in an attempt to control where replies are sent.  Such
   lists typically add or replace the "Reply-To" field, and some add or
   replace the "Sender" field.  Some lists alter or replace other
   fields, including "From".

   Among these list-specific header fields are those specified in RFCs
   2369 [RFC2369] and 2919 [RFC2919].  For more information, see
   Section 3.

1.2.  Non-ASCII Email Addresses

   While the mail transport protocol is the same for regular email
   recipients and mailing list recipients, list agents have special
   considerations with non-ASCII email addresses because they retransmit
   messages composed by other agents to potentially many recipients.

   There are considerations for non-ASCII email addresses in the
   envelope as well as in header fields of redistributed messages.  In
   particular, a message with non-ASCII addresses in the headers or
   envelope cannot be sent to non-SMTPUTF8 recipients.

   With mailing lists, there are two different types of considerations:
   first, the purely technical ones involving message handling, error
   cases, and the like, and second, those that arise from the fact that
   humans use mailing lists to communicate.  As an example of the first,
   list agents might choose to reject all messages from non-ASCII
   addresses if they are unprepared to handle SMTPUTF8 mail.  As an
   example of the second, a user who sends a message to a list often is
   unaware of the list membership.  In particular, the user often
   doesn't know if the members are SMTPUTF8 mail users or not, and often
   neither the original sender nor the recipients personally know each
   other.  As a consequence of this, remedies that may be readily
   available for one-to-one communication might not be appropriate when
   dealing with mailing lists.  For example, if a user sends a message
   that is undeliverable, normally the telephone, instant messaging, or
   other forms of communication are available to obtain a working

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 3]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

   address.  With mailing lists, the users may not have any recourse.
   Of course, with mailing lists, the original sender usually does not
   know which list members successfully received a message or if it was
   undeliverable to some.

   Conceptually, a mailing list's internationalization can be divided
   into three capabilities.  First, does the list have a non-ASCII
   submission address?  Second, does the list agent accept subscriptions
   for addresses containing non-ASCII characters?  And third, does the
   list agent accept messages that require SMTPUTF8 capabilities?

   If a list has subscribers with ASCII addresses, those subscribers
   might or might not be able to accept SMTPUTF8 messages.

2.  Scenarios Involving Mailing Lists

   Generally (and exclusively within the scope of this document), an
   original message is sent to a mailing list as a completely separate
   and independent transaction from the list agent sending the
   retransmitted message to one or more list recipients.  In both cases,
   the message might be addressed only to the list address or might have
   recipients in addition to the list.  Furthermore, the list agent
   might choose to send the retransmitted message to each list recipient
   in a separate message submission transaction or might choose to
   include multiple recipients per transaction.  Often, list agents are
   constructed to work in cooperation with, rather than include the
   functionality of, a message submission server; hence, the list
   transmits to a single submission server one copy of the retransmitted
   message.  The submission server then decides which recipients to
   include in which transaction.

2.1.  Fully SMTPUTF8 Lists

   Some lists may wish to be fully SMTPUTF8.  That is, all subscribers
   are expected to be able to receive SMTPUTF8 mail.  For list hygiene
   reasons, such a list would probably want to prevent subscriptions
   from addresses that are unable to receive SMTPUTF8 mail.  If a
   putative subscriber has a non-ASCII address, it must be able to
   receive SMTPUTF8 mail, but there is no way to tell whether a
   subscriber with an ASCII address can receive SMTPUTF8 mail short of
   sending an SMTPUTF8 probe or confirmation message and somehow finding
   out whether it was delivered, e.g., if the user clicked a link in the
   confirmation message.

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 4]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

2.2.  Mixed SMTPUTF8 and ASCII Lists

   Other lists may wish to handle a mixture of SMTPUTF8 and ASCII
   subscribers, either as a transitional measure as subscribers upgrade
   to SMTPUTF8-capable mail software or as an ongoing feature.  While it
   is not possible in general to downgrade SMTPUTF8 mail to ASCII mail,
   list software might divide the recipients into two sets, SMTPUTF8 and
   ASCII recipients, and create a downgraded version of SMTPUTF8 list
   messages to send to ASCII recipients.  See Sections 3.2 and 3.3.

   To determine which set an address belongs in, list software might
   make the conservative assumption that ASCII addresses get ASCII
   messages, it might try to probe the address with an SMTPUTF8 test
   message, or it might let the subscriber set the message format
   manually, similar to the way that some lists now let subscribers
   choose between plain text and HTML mail, or individual messages and a
   daily digest.

   To determine whether a message needs to be downgraded for ASCII
   recipients, list software might assume that any message received via
   an SMTPUTF8 SMTP session is an SMTPUTF8 message or might examine the
   headers and body of the message to see whether it needs SMTPUTF8
   treatment.  Depending on the interface between the list software and
   the Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) and Mail Delivery Agent (MDA) that
   handle incoming messages, it may not be able to tell the type of
   session for incoming messages.

2.3.  SMTP Issues

   Mailing list software usually changes the envelope addresses on each
   message.  The bounce address is set to an address that will return
   bounces to the list agent, and the recipient addresses are set to the
   subscribers of the list.  For some lists, all messages to a list get
   the same bounce address.  For others, list software may create a
   bounce address per recipient or a unique bounce address per message
   per recipient, bounce management techniques known as Variable
   Envelope Return Paths or VERP [VERP].

   The bounce address for a list typically includes the name of the
   list, so a list with a non-ASCII name will have a non-ASCII bounce
   address.  Given the unknown paths that bounce messages might take,
   list software might instead use an ASCII bounce address to make it
   more likely that bounces can be delivered back to the list agent.
   Similarly, a VERP address for each subscriber typically embeds a
   version of the subscriber's address so the VERP bounce address for a
   non-ASCII subscriber address will be a non-ASCII address.  For the
   same reason, the list software might use ASCII bounce addresses that
   encode the recipient's identity in some other way.

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 5]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

3.  List Headers

   List agents typically add list-specific headers to each message
   before resending the message to list recipients.

3.1.  SMTPUTF8 List Headers

   The list headers in RFCs 2369 [RFC2369] and 2919 [RFC2919] were all
   specified before SMTPUTF8 mail existed, and their definitions do not
   address where non-ASCII characters might appear.  These include, for

   List-Id: List Header Mailing List
      <> (Contact Person for Help)

   As described in [RFC2369], "[t]he contents of the list header fields
   mostly consist of angle-bracket ('<', '>') enclosed URLs, with
   internal whitespace being ignored".  [RFC2919] specifies that "[t]he
   list identifier will, in most cases, appear like a host name in a
   domain of the list owner".  Since these headers were defined in the
   context of ASCII mail, these headers permit only ASCII text,
   including in the URLs.

   The most commonly used URI schemes in List-* headers tend to be http
   and mailto [RFC6068], although they sometimes include https and ftp
   and, in principle, can contain any valid URI.

   Even if a scheme permits an internationalized form, it should use a
   pure ASCII form of the URI described in [RFC3986].  Future work may
   extend these header fields or define replacements to directly support
   unencoded non-ASCII outside the ASCII repertoire in these and other
   header fields, but in the absence of such extension or replacement,
   non-ASCII characters can only be included by encoding them as ASCII.

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 6]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

   The encoding technique specified in [RFC3986] is to use a pair of hex
   digits preceded by a percent sign, but percent signs have been used
   informally in mail addresses to do source routing.  Although few mail
   systems still permit source routing, a lot of mail software still
   forbids or escapes characters formerly used for source routing, which
   can lead to unfortunate interactions with percent-encoded URIs or any
   URI that includes one of those characters.  If a program interpreting
   a mailto: URI knew that the Mail User Agent (MUA) in use were able to
   handle non-ASCII data, the program could pass the URI in unencoded
   non-ASCII, avoiding problems with misinterpreted percent signs, but
   at this point, there is no standard or even informal way for MUAs to
   signal SMTPUTF8 capabilities.  Also, note that whether
   internationalized domain names should be percent-encoded or appear in
   A-label form [RFC5890] depends on the context in which they occur.

   The List-ID header field uniquely identifies a list.  The intent is
   that the value of this header remain constant, even if the machine or
   system used to operate or host the list changes.  This header field
   is often used in various filters and tests, such as client-side
   filters, Sieve filters [RFC5228], and so forth.  If the definition of
   a List-ID header field were to be extended to allow non-ASCII text,
   filters and tests might not properly compare encoded and unencoded
   versions of a non-ASCII value.  In addition to these comparison
   considerations, it is generally desirable that this header field
   contain something meaningful that users can type in.  However, ASCII
   encodings of non-ASCII characters are unlikely to be meaningful to
   users or easy for them to accurately type.

3.2.  Downgrading List Headers

   If list software prepares a downgraded version of an SMTPUTF8
   message, all the List-* headers must be downgraded.  In particular,
   if a List-* header contains a non-ASCII mailto (even encoded in
   ASCII), it may be advisable to edit the header to remove the non-
   ASCII address or replace it with an equivalent ASCII address if one
   is known to the list software.  Otherwise, a client might run into
   trouble if the decoded mailto results in a non-ASCII address.  If a
   header that contains a mailto URL is downgraded by percent encoding,
   some mail software may misinterpret the percent signs as attempted
   source routing.

   When downgrading list headers, it may not be possible to produce a
   downgraded version that is satisfactorily equivalent to the original
   header.  In particular, if a non-ASCII List-ID is downgraded to an
   ASCII version, software and humans at recipient systems will
   typically not be able to tell that both refer to the same list.

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 7]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

   If lists permit mail with multiple MIME parts, some MIME headers in
   SMTPUTF8 messages may include non-ASCII characters in file names and
   other descriptive text strings.  Downgrading these strings may lose
   the sense of the names, break references from other MIME parts (such
   as HTML IMG references to embedded images), and otherwise damage the

3.3.  Subscribers' Addresses in Downgraded Headers

   List software typically leaves the original submitter's address in
   the From: line, both so that recipients can tell who wrote the
   message and so that they have a choice of responding to the list or
   directly to the submitter.  If a submitter has a non-ASCII address,
   there is no way to downgrade the From: header and preserve the
   address so that ASCII recipients can respond to it, since non-
   SMTPUTF8 mail systems can't send mail to non-ASCII addresses.

   Possible work-arounds (none implemented that we know of) might
   include allowing subscribers with non-ASCII addresses to register an
   alternate ASCII address with the list software, having the list
   software itself create ASCII forwarding addresses, or just putting
   the list's address in the From: line and losing the ability to
   respond directly to the submitter.

4.  Security Considerations

   None beyond what mailing list agents do now.

5.  References

5.1.  Normative References

   [RFC3986]  Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R., and L. Masinter, "Uniform
              Resource Identifier (URI): Generic Syntax", STD 66,
              RFC 3986, January 2005.

   [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.

   [RFC6530]  Klensin, J. and Y. Ko, "Overview and Framework for
              Internationalized Email", RFC 6530, February 2012.

Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 8]
RFC 6783          Mailing Lists and Non-ASCII Addresses    November 2012

5.2.  Informative References

   [RFC2369]  Neufeld, G. and J. Baer, "The Use of URLs as Meta-Syntax
              for Core Mail List Commands and their Transport through
              Message Header Fields", RFC 2369, July 1998.

   [RFC2919]  Chandhok, R. and G. Wenger, "List-Id: A Structured Field
              and Namespace for the Identification of Mailing Lists",
              RFC 2919, March 2001.

   [RFC5228]  Guenther, P. and T. Showalter, "Sieve: An Email Filtering
              Language", RFC 5228, January 2008.

   [RFC5890]  Klensin, J., "Internationalized Domain Names for
              Applications (IDNA): Definitions and Document Framework",
              RFC 5890, August 2010.

   [VERP]     Bernstein, D., "Variable Envelope Return Paths",
              February 1997, <>.

Authors' Addresses

   John Levine
   Taughannock Networks
   PO Box 727
   Trumansburg, NY  14886

   Phone: +1 831 480 2300

   Randall Gellens
   Qualcomm Incorporated
   5775 Morehouse Drive
   San Diego, CA  92121


Levine & Gellens              Informational                     [Page 9]