Independent Submission M. Nottingham
Request for Comments: 8674
The "safe" HTTP Preference
This specification defines a preference for HTTP requests that
expresses a desire to avoid objectionable content, according to the
definition of that term by the origin server.
This specification does not define a precise semantic for "safe".
Rather, the term is interpreted by the server and within the scope of
each web site that chooses to act upon this information.
Support for this preference by clients and servers is optional.
Status of This Memo
This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is
published for informational purposes.
This is a contribution to the RFC Series, independently of any other
RFC stream. The RFC Editor has chosen to publish this document at
its discretion and makes no statement about its value for
implementation or deployment. Documents approved for publication by
the RFC Editor are not candidates for any level of Internet Standard;
see Section 2 of RFC 7841
Information about the current status of this document, any errata,
and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8674
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Table of Contents 1.
Notational Conventions 2.
The "safe" Preference 3.
Security Considerations 4.
IANA Considerations 5.
Normative References 5.2.
Informative References Appendix A
. Sending the "safe" Preference from Web Browsers Appendix B
. Supporting the "safe" Preference on Web Sites
Many web sites have a "safe" mode to assist those who don't want to
be exposed (or have their children exposed) to content to which they
However, that goal is often difficult to achieve because of the need
to go to every web site that might be used and navigate to the
appropriate page (possibly creating an account along the way) to get
a cookie [RFC6265
] set in the browser, for each browser on every
A more manageable approach is for the browser to proactively indicate
a preference for safe content. A user agent that supports doing so
(whether it be an individual browser or through an operating system
HTTP library) need only be configured once to ensure that the
preference is advertised to a set of sites, or even all sites.
This specification defines how to declare this desire in requests as
an HTTP Preference [RFC7240
Note that this specification does not define what content might be
considered objectionable, so the concept of "safe" is not precisely
defined. Rather, the term is interpreted by the server and within
the scope of each web site that chooses to act upon this information.
That said, the intent is to allow end users (or those acting on their
behalf) to express a desire to avoid content that is considered
objectionable within the cultural context of that site; usually (but
not always), the objectionable content is content unsuitable for
minors. The safe preference is not intended to be used for other
Furthermore, sending the preference does not guarantee that the web
site will use it or that it will apply a concept of "objectionable"
that is consistent with the requester's views. As such, its effect
can be described as "best effort" and not to be relied upon. In
other words, sending the preference is no more reliable than going to
each web site and manually selecting a safe mode, but it is
It is also important to note that the safe preference is not a
reliable indicator that the end user is a child; other users might
have a desire for unobjectionable content, and some children might
browse without the preference being set.
Note also that the cultural context applies to the hosting location
of a site, the content provider, and the source of the content. It
cannot be guaranteed that a user agent and origin server will have
the same view of the concept of what is objectionable.
Simply put, it is a statement by (or on behalf of) the end user
indicating that "if your site has a safe setting, this user is hereby
opting into that, according to your definition of the term."
The mechanism described in this document does not have IETF consensus
and is not a standard. It is a widely deployed approach that has
turned out to be useful and is presented here so that server and
browser implementations can have a common understanding of how it
This mechanism was presented for publication as an IETF Proposed
Standard but was not approved for publication by the IESG because of
concerns that included the vagueness of the meaning of "safe", the
ability of a proxy to insert the hint outside of a user's control,
the fact that there was no way to know whether the hint was or was
not applied to the response returned by the server, and the
possibility that the use of this preference may incentivize increased
censorship and/or targeting of minors.
The specification was updated to address those concerns, but the IESG
did not approve progressing this document as an IETF Proposed
Standard. As a result, it has been published in the Independent
1.1. Notational Conventions
The key words "MUST
", "MUST NOT
", "SHALL NOT
", "SHOULD NOT
", "NOT RECOMMENDED
" in this document are to be interpreted as described in
BCP 14 [RFC2119
] when, and only when, they appear in all
capitals, as shown here.
2. The "safe" Preference
When present in a request, the safe preference indicates that the
user prefers that the origin server not respond with content that is
designated as objectionable, according to the origin server's
definition of the concept.
For example, this is a request that includes the safe preference:
GET /foo.html HTTP/1.1
Typically, user agents that emit the safe preference will include it
in all requests with the "https" URI scheme, although some might
expose finer-grained controls over when it is sent; this ensures that
the preference is available to the applicable resources. User agents MUST NOT
emit the safe preference on requests with the "http" URI
scheme (see Section 3
). See Appendix A
for more information about
configuring the set of resources the safe preference is sent to.
The safe preference MAY
be implemented in common HTTP libraries
(e.g., an operating system might choose to insert the preference in
requests based upon system-wide configuration).
Origin servers that utilize the safe preference ought to document
that they do so, along with the criteria that they use to denote
objectionable content. If a server has more fine-grained degrees of
safety, it SHOULD
select a reasonable default to use and document
that; it MAY
use additional mechanisms (e.g., cookies [RFC6265
A response corresponding to the request above might have headers that
look like this:
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Here, the Preference-Applied response header [RFC7240
] indicates that
the site has applied the preference. Servers are not required to
send Preference-Applied (even when they have applied the preference)
but are encouraged to where possible.
Note that the Vary response header needs to be sent if the response
is cacheable and might change depending on the value of the Prefer
header. This is not only true for those responses that are safe but
also the default unsafe response.
See Section 4.1 of [RFC7234
] for more information about the
interaction between the Vary header field and web caching.
See Appendix B
for additional advice specific to web servers wishing
to use the safe preference.
3. Security Considerations
The safe preference is not a secure mechanism; it can be inserted or
removed by intermediaries with access to the request stream (e.g.,
for "http" URLs). Therefore, it is prohibited from being included in
requests with the "http" scheme.
Its presence reveals information about the user, which may be of
assistance in fingerprinting the user by sites and other entities in
the network. This information provides insight into the preferences
of the user and might be used to make assumptions about user; thus,
it could be used to identify categories of users for purposes such as
targeting (including advertising and identification of minors).
Therefore, user agents SHOULD NOT
include it in requests when the
user has expressed a desire to avoid such attacks (e.g., some forms
of private mode browsing).
By its nature, including the safe preference in requests does not
ensure that all content will actually be safe; content is safe only
when servers elect to honor it.
Even then, a malicious server might adapt content so that it is even
less safe (by some definition of the word). As such, this mechanism
on its own is not enough to ensure that only safe content is seen;
those who wish to ensure that will need to combine its use with other
techniques (e.g., content filtering).
Furthermore, the server and user may have differing ideas regarding
the semantics of "safe". As such, the safety of the user's
experience when browsing from site to site, as well as over time,
might (and probably will) change.
4. IANA Considerations
Per this specification, IANA has registered the following entry in
the "HTTP Preferences" registry [RFC7240
* Preference: safe
* Description: Indicates that safe (i.e., unobjectionable) content
* Reference: RFC 8674
5.1. Normative References
] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119
, March 1997,
] Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. Reschke,
Ed., "Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Caching", RFC 7234
, DOI 10.17487/RFC7234
, June 2014,
] Snell, J., "Prefer Header for HTTP", RFC 7240
, June 2014,
] Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119
Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174
, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174
May 2017, <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8174
5.2. Informative References
] Barth, A., "HTTP State Management Mechanism", RFC 6265
, April 2011,
Appendix A. Sending the "safe" Preference from Web Browsers
As discussed in Section 2
, there are many possible ways for the safe
preference to be generated. One possibility is for a web browser to
allow its users to configure the preference to be sent.
When doing so, it is important not to misrepresent the preference as
binding to web sites. For example, an appropriate setting might be a
checkbox with wording such as:
 Request safe content from web sites
along with further information available upon request.
Browsers might also allow the safe preference to be locked to prevent
modification without administrative access or a passcode.
Note that this specification does not require browsers to send the
safe preference on all requests, although that is one possible
implementation; alternate implementation strategies include
blacklists and whitelists.
Appendix B. Supporting the "safe" Preference on Web Sites
Web sites that allow configuration of a safe mode (for example, using
a cookie) can add support for the safe preference incrementally;
since the preference will not be supported by all clients
immediately, it is necessary to have another way to configure it.
When honoring the safe preference, it is important that it not be
possible to disable it through the web site's interface, since the
safe preference may be configured and locked down by the browser or
computer's administrator (e.g., a parent). If the site has such a
means of configuration (e.g., stored user preferences) and the safe
preference is received in a request, the "safer" interpretation ought
to be used.
The appropriate level of safety is a site-specific decision. When
selecting it, sites ought to bear in mind that disabling the
preference might be considerably more onerous than using other means,
especially if the preference is generated based upon the operating
Sites might offer different levels of safety through web
configuration; they will need to either inform their users of what
level the safe hint corresponds to or provide them with some means of
If users express a wish to disable safe mode, the site can remind
them that the safe preference is being sent and ask them to consult
their administrator (since the safe preference might be set by a
locked-down operating system configuration).
As explained in Section 2
, responses that change based upon the
presence of the safe preference need to either carry the "Vary:
Prefer" response header field or be uncacheable by shared caches
(e.g., with a "Cache-Control: private" response header field). This
is to avoid an unsafe cached response being served to a client that
prefers safe content (or vice versa).
Thanks to Alissa Cooper, Ilya Grigorik, Emma Llanso, Jeff Hughes,
Lorrie Cranor, Doug Turner, and Dave Crocker for their comments.