[whatwg] Guessing the fallback encoding from the top-level domain name before trying to guess from the browser localization

Henri Sivonen hsivonen at hsivonen.fi
Thu Dec 19 06:28:27 PST 2013

(Posted to whatwg and www-international but not cross-posted, because
cross-posting would be against the whatwg list rules.)

Currently, the main source of fallback encoding (the encoding used for
text/html and text/plain in the absence of a site-supplied encoding
label) is that the UI localization of the browser.

Secondarily, in some cases a guess is made based on the input bytes.
In Firefox, by default, such a guess happens for the Japanese, Russian
and Ukrainian localizations, though it's unclear how necessary it is
to have this feature in the Russian and Ukrainian cases. It appears
that Safari and IE have content-based detection for Japanese
encodings, but it's unclear to me under what conditions that detection
code runs. Chrome seems to have content-based detection for a broader
range of encodings. (Why?)

Considering that the encoding of the content browsed is not really a
function of the UI localization of the browser, though the two are
often correlated, I have developed a patch for Firefox to make the
guess based on the top-level domain name of the URL of the document
when possible.

Before deciding whether to land that patch, I'd like to get feedback
from the broader Web standards community.

Does this seem like a good idea? Good idea if the mapping details are
tweaked? Bad idea? (Why?)

# Summary of what the path does

In the patch currently, the fallback is guessed from the TLD unless
 * The URL scheme doesn't involve a host.
 * The host is an IP address.
 * The domain name is an ancient generic TLD (.com, .net, .org) that
has been used all around the world.
 * The domain name is a country TLD whose legacy encoding affiliation
I couldn't figure out: .ba, .cy, .my. (Should .il be here in case
there's windows-1256 legacy in addition to windows-1255 legacy?)

New non-country TLDs are treated as windows-1252-affiliated, since a
TLD is treated as windows-1252-affiliated unless it is explicitly
listed as non-participating or explicitly listed as affiliated with a
different legacy encoding. Also in the current patch, .me and .md are
treated as windows-1252-affiliated, because they are sold for
out-of-country English use. Maybe they shouldn't participate in TLD
guessing instead?

The list of TLDs that participate in the guessing and are not
windows-1252-affiliated is currently:

UTF-8 is never guessed, since it is not a legacy encoding. All authors
who are doing the right thing (i.e. use UTF-8) are equally
inconvenienced by being required to declare it just like before. This
is about making legacy content work for users--not about making it
easy for authors not to declare the encoding for new content.

# Goals

 * Reduce the effect of browser configuration (localization) on how
the Web renders.

 * Make it easier for people to read legacy content on the Web
across-locales without having to use the Character Encoding menu.

 * Address the potential use cases for Firefox's old
never-on-by-default combined Chinese, CJK and Universal (not actually
universal!) detectors without the downsides of heuristic detection.

 * Avoid introducing new fallback encoding guesses that don't already
result from guessing based on the browser localization.

# Why is this better than what browser are currently doing?

 * Currently, browsers are trying to guess a characteristic of legacy
content. The TLD is more tightly attached to the content then the
browser localization.

# Why is this better that analyzing the content itself?

 * Analyzing the content itself has to interfere with one the following:
   - Incremental parsing/rendering of HTML
   - Script side effects / visual appearance of the page load
   - Inheritance of character encoding into CSS/JS
  ...or make the guess based on an insufficient amount of input data.

 * When documents contain a lot of code before human-readable text, a
lot of bytes need to be consumed before making a decision. The TLD is
available before seeing any content bytes at all.

 * Especially for single-byte encodings, content analysis is not exact
and could introduce mis-detections to locales that currently get by
fine with their fallback encoding.

 * A static mapping from TLDs to encodings is more
understandable/debuggable than having guesses potentially change when
content changes.

 * This is simpler to implement than creating a truly universal
detector (Firefox's current Universal detector is not) or vetting,
potentially adjusting and integrating the ICU detector.

# Why is this harmless?

 * This only applies to non-conforming content. Any site that this
applies to always has a way to opt out by becoming conforming (by
declaring its encoding).

 * All the possible TLD-based guesses are pre-existing browser
locale-based guesses, so the situation faced by any site as the result
of this feature is a situation it already faces with some existing
browser localization.

 * UTF-8 is never guessed, so this feature doesn't give anyone who
uses UTF-8 a reason not to declare it. In that sense, this feature
doesn't interfere with the authoring methodology sites should,
ideally, be adhering to.

# How could this be harmful?

 * This could emphasize pre-existing brokenness (failure to declare
the encoding) of sites targeted at language minorities when the legacy
encoding for the minority language doesn't match the legacy encoding
for the majority language of the country and 100% of the target
audience of the site uses a browser localization that matches the
language of the site. For example, it's *imaginable* that there exists
a Russian-language windows-1251-encoded (but not declared) site under
.ee that's currently always browsed with Russian browser
localizations. More realistically, minority-language sites whose
encoding doesn't match the dominant encoding of the country probably
can't be relying on their audience using a particular browser
localization and are probably more aware than most about encoding
issues and already declare their encoding, so I'm not particularly
worried about this scenario being a serious problem. And sites can
always fix things by declaring their encoding.

 * This could cause some breakage when unlabeled non-windows-1252
sites are hosted under a foreign TLD, because the TLD looks cool (e.g.
.io). However, this is a relatively new phenomenon, so one might hope
that there's less content authored according to legacy practices

 * This probably lowers the incentive to declare the legacy encoding a little.

Henri Sivonen
hsivonen at hsivonen.fi

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