[whatwg] Comments on the definition of a valid e-mail address

Aryeh Gregor Simetrical+w3c at gmail.com
Sun Aug 23 12:41:12 PDT 2009

Section defines a valid e-mail address as follows:

"A valid e-mail address is a string that matches the production
dot-atom-text "@" dot-atom-text where dot-atom-text is defined in RFC
5322 section 3.2.3. [RFC5322]"

This is much more restrictive than the full range of e-mail addresses
allowed by RFC 5322 et al.  I've been considering whether to use
<input type=email> in MediaWiki, and whether to change our server-side
e-mail address validation to match.  Historically, MediaWiki has
mostly just required that an @ symbol be present in the address.
Originally we used a simplistic regex, but when users complained, we
looked into the RFCs and decided it was too complicated to bother with
validation beyond checking for an @ sign.

So before switching us over, I decided to do some research on how many
users' addresses would be invalidated.  I used the database for the
English Wikipedia.  Over all registered users, I found 3,088,880
confirmed addresses, not necessarily all distinct.  ("Confirmed" here
means that in theory, modulo bugs, the user followed a confirmation
link in the e-mail they received, so the address probably works in
practice.)  Of those, 3,255 (~0.1%) failed HTML 5 validation, as
determined using the following regex-based database query:

root at rosemary:enwiki> SELECT COUNT(*) FROM user WHERE
user_email_authenticated IS NOT NULL AND user_email NOT REGEXP
AND user_email != '';
| COUNT(*) |
|     3255 |
1 row in set (16 min 10.80 sec)

(Someone please tell me if my regex doesn't match HTML 5 here.)

Inspection showed that the overwhelming majority of the failures were
due to the presence of excess whitespace, often a single trailing
space, or a space inserted before or after the @ sign.  When I
adjusted the regex to ignore those failures, I got a smaller list, 202
(about 0.007% of the total):

root at rosemary:enwiki> SELECT CONCAT('"', user_email, '"'),
user_email_authenticated FROM user WHERE user_email_authenticated IS
NOT NULL AND user_email NOT REGEXP '^[
\n\t]+(\.[-a-zA-Z0-9!#$%&\'*+/=?^_`{|}~ \n\t]+)*[ \n\t]*$' AND
user_email NOT REGEXP
AND user_email != '' LIMIT 500;
| CONCAT('"', user_email, '"')
     | user_email_authenticated |
202 rows in set (13 min 1.71 sec)

Some of these were clearly wrong, and shouldn't have been confirmed to
begin with.  Some even didn't have an @ sign, so probably were
submitted in some window when we did no validation at all (and I have
no idea how they got confirmed).  Of the ones that possibly work, I
identified two major categories:

1) Addresses in the form "foo <bar at baz.example>", or similar.  These
mostly match RFC 5322's name-addr production instead of addr-spec
(some have trailing semicolons, or are missing the initial <, etc.).
I assume these were copy-pasted from a mail application.

2) Addresses with dots in incorrect places, in either the local part
or the domain name part.  For instance, multiple consecutive dots, or
leading/trailing dots.  These don't match RFC 5322 at all AFAICT, but
I asked one of the users with an invalid address of the form
<foo. at example.com>, and he said it worked fine for him.  GNU mail gave
a syntax error when I tried to send mail to that address, but Gmail
sent it without complaint, and the user received it successfully.

There were other types of addresses that didn't meet HTML 5's
specification after whitespace was stripped, but none with more than a
single-digit number of addresses occurring in the sample of three
million or so that I looked at.  It's notable that not a single one
used the quoted-string or domain-literal productions, as far as I
could tell from manual inspection.

I should also note that this was only the English Wikipedia, and it
might be that speakers of other languages are more prone to use other
types of addresses that don't meet HTML 5's specification.  When
looking at the Swedish and German databases, for instance, I found one
or two addresses that had apparently been confirmed but contained
non-ASCII characters.  I didn't know the users with those addresses,
and I didn't want to send them unsolicited mail, so I wasn't able to
establish whether those addresses actually worked or the confirmation
was bogus.

Conclusions: At a minimum, I suggest that HTML 5 require that user
agents strip all whitespace from e-mails, not just newlines.  Roughly
0.1% of the addresses from my sample were valid except for extraneous
whitespace.  It's a small additional change that would cut the number
of illegitimately invalid addresses in my sample by a factor of more
than ten.

Beyond that, although it's safe to say that quoted-string or
domain-literal or even entirely invalid addresses are extraordinarily
rare, there are *some* real people who do use them.  Unless something
is so completely invalid that it's obviously impossible that any mail
server would even try to send it anywhere, you're probably going to be
cutting out some small number of users.

So why not have the spec say that in the case of e-mail addresses, the
browser may warn the user, but should permit them to submit the
address anyway?  If the user is willing to override the warning, then
it's likely that they personally know that the e-mail address works,
e.g., because they use it.

Alternatively, you could just loosen the restrictions even further,
and only ban input that doesn't contain an @ sign.  (Or that doesn't
match ^[^@]+@[^@]+\.[^@]+$, or whatever.)  Or just don't ban anything
at all, like with type=tel.  type=email differs from most of the other
types with validity constraints (like month, number, etc.) in that the
difference between valid and invalid values is a purely pragmatic
question (what will actually work?) that the user can often answer
better than the application.  It doesn't seem like a good idea for the
standard to tell users that the e-mail addresses they've actually been
using are invalid.

I think this input type has only been implemented in Opera so far.  In
any case, I don't think there are serious interoperability concerns
with changing it at this point, since the overwhelming majority of
users won't be affected.

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