Internet-Draft Communicating Warning Information in HTT September 2020
Cedik & Wilde Expires 28 March 2021 [Page]
Network Working Group
Intended Status:
Standards Track
A. Cedik
shipcloud GmbH
E. Wilde

Communicating Warning Information in HTTP APIs


This document defines a new HTTP field Content-Warning and a standard response format for representing warning information in HTTP APIs.

Note to Readers

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Status of This Memo

This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

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This Internet-Draft will expire on 28 March 2021.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Many current APIs are based on HTTP [RFC7230] as their application protocol. Their response handling model is based on the assumption that requests either are successful or they fail. In both cases (success and failure) an HTTP status code [RFC7231] is returned to convey either fact.

But response status is not always strictly either success or failure. For example, there are cases where an underlying system returns a response with data that cannot be defined as a clear error. API providers who are integrating such a service might want to return a success response nonetheless, but returning a HTTP status code of e.g. 200 OK without any additional information is not the only possible approach in this case.

As defined in the principles of Web architecture [W3C.REC-webarch-20041215], agents that "recover from errors by making a choice without the user's consent are not acting on the user's behalf". Therefore APIs should be able to communicate what has happened to their consumers, which then allows clients or users to make more informed decisions. Note that this specification specifically targets warnings and not errors, meaning that while it may be useful for clients to understand the warning condition and act on it, they also may choose to ignore it and treat the response as a successful one.

This document defines a warning code and a standard response structure for communicating and representing warning information in HTTP APIs. The goal is to allow HTTP providers to have a standardized way of communicating to their consumers that while the response can be considered to represent success, there is warning information available that they might want to take into account.

As a general guideline, warning information should be considered to be any information that can be safely ignored (treating the response as if it did not communicate or embed any warning information), but that might help clients and users to make better decisions.

2. Notational Conventions

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in [RFC2119].

3. Content-Warning Field

The Content-Warning field can be found in the header or trailer section (see Section 4.6 of [I-D.ietf-httpbis-semantics]) of http responses and allows to represent different kinds of warning information via HTTP. It is defined as a Structured Header List [I-D.ietf-httpbis-header-structure]. Its ABNF is:

Content-Warning = sh-list

Each member of the list MUST have exactly the two parameters "type" and "date".

Intermediaries of a response are not allowed to modify existing Content-Warning fields, but can add additional entries if warnings are produced while they are handling a response.

3.1. HTTP request methods

The Content-Warning Field is not tied to any specific HTTP request method, although specific values MAY only be used with a single or a subset of methods. The information as to which HTTP request methods are support for a single Content-Warning Type MUST be defined in the definition of the Content-Warning Type.

4. The "embedded-warning" Content-Warning Type

This document introduces the Content-Warning Type "embedded-warning".

As mentioned in the introduction (Section 1), HTTP requests can be successful or they can fail. They can also result in a state where the original intent was satisfied, but a side effect happened that should be conveyed back to the client.

To make it easier for clients to handle such an event, the Content-Warning type "embedded-warning" MAY be returned. In this case, the client MAY either treat the response according to its HTTP status code, or in addition the client MAY use the embedded warning information to understand the nature of the warning.

The "embedded-warning" type does not prescribe the way in which warnings are represented. The assumption is that the response will have embedded information that allows the client to learn about the nature of the warning. The following section describes a JSON structure that MAY be used to represent the warning. HTTP services are free to use this or other formats to represent the warning information they are embedding.

An exemplary Content-Warning field looks like this:

Content-Warning: "embedded-warning"; 1590190500

4.1. Allowed HTTP request methods for embedded-warning

The embedded-warning Content-Warning Type infers, that there is more information in the responses body. Therefore all HTTP request methods that MAY have content in their body MAY also return embedded warnings.

HTTP request methods that do not return a body in their response SHOULD NOT return the embedded-warning Content-Warning Type.

The HTTP request method HEAD is an exception since it is allowed to return headers that are meant for being returned when sending a GET request. Therefore it MAY return the embedded-warning Content-Warning Type, although the body will be empty.

5. JSON Warning Format

The JSON warning format uses the JSON format described in [RFC8259]. It is intended to be used as a building block in the response schemas of JSON-based APIs.

In many current designs of JSON-based HTTP APIs, services represent response data as members of the returned JSON object. In order to make it easier for consumers to identify information about warnings, a top-level member is defined that contains all warning information in a representation. A "warnings" member MUST encapsulate the warnings that will be returned to the client.

When a condition occurs that can not be defined as a "hard error" (i.e., that allows clients to continue treating the resulting response as a success), additional information about this condition SHOULD be returned to the client. The "warnings" member MUST be an array that is structured with one object for each and every warning message that is returned to the client.

Entries in these individual objects follow the pattern described in [RFC7807].

When warnings are present the Content-Warning field (as defined in Section 3) SHOULD be set to indicate that warnings have be returned. This way a client will not have to parse the response body to find out whether a warnings member is present.

6. Example with HTTP Field and Embedded Warning

Since warnings do not have an effect on the returned HTTP status code, the response status code SHOULD be in the 2xx range, indicating that the intent of the client was successful.

POST /example HTTP/1.1
Accept: application/json

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: application/json
Content-Warning: "embedded-warning"; 1590190500

  "request_id": "2326b087-d64e-43bd-a557-42171155084f",
  "warnings": [
      "detail": "Street name was too long. It has been shortened...",
      "instance": "",
      "status": "200",
      "title": "Street name too long. It has been shortened.",
      "type": ""
      "detail": "City for this zipcode unknown. Code for shipment..",
      "instance": "",
      "status": "200",
      "title": "City for zipcode unknown.",
      "type": ""
  "id": "3a186c51d4281acb",
  "carrier_tracking_no": "84168117830018",
  "tracking_url": "",
  "label_url": "",
  "price": 3.4

This example shows that the original intent was successful. If the original request was in fact not successful, a different status code SHOULD be returned. Embedded warnings are not tied to a specific http status code. Therefore they can be combined with every status code.

7. Cache Considerations

The Content-Warning field itself does not encourage a specific handling when it comes to caching responses. It is up to the Content-Warning type to specify if caching can be used or not.

7.1. Caching the "embedded-warning" Content-Warning type

The reasons for returning the Content-Warning Type "embedded-warning" can be manifold. A system could e.g. return warnings due to circumstances in the backend that can either still exist on subsequent requests or that have been solved in the meantime.

Intermediaries can fall into the same category. When a warning occurs, it can add warnings to the response making it possible to debug what happened at the intermediary. The reason for said warning can persist or may disappear on subsequent requests.

Therefore caching embedded-warnings SHOULD NOT be done. As one can't predict if the reason for returning embedded-warnings is still persistent.

8. Security Considerations

API providers need to exercise care when reporting warnings. Malicious actors could use this information for orchestrating attacks. Social engineering can also be a factor when warning information is returned by the API.

Clients processing warning information SHOULD make sure the right type of content was transmitted by checking the content-type header as well as the content-warning field. Content in the bodys warnings object SHOULD be processed accordingly. If no content-warning field was provided, clients are advised to ignore the content provided in the bodys warnings object.

8.1. Absence of a response body

As described in Section 4.1 the embedded-warning Content-Warning type is expecting a body to be returned in the http response unless the HEAD method has been used for the request.

Therefore API clients SHOULD only parse a responses' body when the Content-Warning type is "embedded-warning". When the body is absent, a client SHOULD stop processing the response and return an adequate error message.

If an intermediary discovers a missing response body it MAY adjust the response to return a http status code of 500 - internal server error (see Section 6.6.1 of [RFC7231]).

8.2. Absence of warnings in the response body

When the response body does not contain warnings a client MAY use appropriate ways to inform the api provider about the fact. An error message MAY be

If an intermediary discovers missing warnings in the response body it MAY adjust the response to return warnings containing this information.

9. IANA Considerations

9.1. HTTP Field Content-Warning

This specification registers the following entry in the Permanent Message Field Names registry established by [RFC3864]:

  • Field name: Content-Warning
  • Applicable protocol: HTTP
  • Status: standard
  • Author/Change Controller: IETF
  • Specification document(s): [this document]
  • Related information:

9.2. Content-Warning Type Registry

The "Content-Warning Type Registry" defines the namespace for new Content-Warning types. This specification establishes a new registry according to the guidelines given in [RFC8126]. This new registry should not be included in an existing group of registries.

9.2.1. Registration Procedure

A registration MUST include the following fields:

  • Content-Warning Type: Name of the Content-Warning Type
  • Reference: Pointer to a specification text

The registration policy for this registry is "Specification Required" as defined by [RFC8126], Section 4.6. They MUST follow the "sh-token" syntax defined by [I-D.ietf-httpbis-header-structure].

9.2.2. Initial Registry Content

The registry has been populated with the registered values shown below:

| Content-Warning Type   | Reference                        |
| embedded-warning       | this RFC, Section 4              |

10. References

10.1. Normative References

Nottingham, M., "Binary Structured HTTP Headers", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-nottingham-binary-structured-headers-02, , <>.
Nottingham, M. and P. Kamp, "Structured Headers for HTTP", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-ietf-httpbis-header-structure-14, , <>.
Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. F. Reschke, Ed., "HTTP Semantics", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-ietf-httpbis-semantics-07, , <>.
Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <>.
Klyne, G., Nottingham, M., and J. Mogul, "Registration Procedures for Message Header Fields", BCP 90, RFC 3864, DOI 10.17487/RFC3864, , <>.
Fielding, R., Ed. and J. Reschke, Ed., "Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Message Syntax and Routing", RFC 7230, DOI 10.17487/RFC7230, , <>.
Fielding, R., Ed. and J. Reschke, Ed., "Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Semantics and Content", RFC 7231, DOI 10.17487/RFC7231, , <>.
Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. Reschke, Ed., "Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Caching", RFC 7234, DOI 10.17487/RFC7234, , <>.
Nottingham, M. and E. Wilde, "Problem Details for HTTP APIs", RFC 7807, DOI 10.17487/RFC7807, , <>.
Cotton, M., Leiba, B., and T. Narten, "Guidelines for Writing an IANA Considerations Section in RFCs", BCP 26, RFC 8126, DOI 10.17487/RFC8126, , <>.
Bray, T., Ed., "The JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) Data Interchange Format", STD 90, RFC 8259, DOI 10.17487/RFC8259, , <>.

10.2. Informative References

Jacobs, I. and N. Walsh, "Architecture of the World Wide Web, Volume One", World Wide Web Consortium Recommendation REC-webarch-20041215, , <>.

Appendix A. Acknowledgements

Thanks for comments and suggestions provided by Roy Fielding, Mark Nottingham, and Roberto Polli.

Authors' Addresses

Andre Cedik
shipcloud GmbH
Erik Wilde