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net/http: Clarify Content-Type behavior of ResponseWriter.Write #41259

empijei opened this issue Sep 7, 2020 · 0 comments

net/http: Clarify Content-Type behavior of ResponseWriter.Write #41259

empijei opened this issue Sep 7, 2020 · 0 comments


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@empijei empijei commented Sep 7, 2020


The current documentation for http.ResponseWriter.Write states:

If the Header does not contain a Content-Type line,
Write adds a Content-Type set to the result of passing
the initial 512 bytes of written data to DetectContentType.

What I think this means is that up to 512 bytes of the first call to write will be used to perform Content-Type detection, there is no buffering involved. I think the comment might be better worded to highlight this part as "the initial 512 bytes of written data" could be misread to mean "across multiple calls to write".

Issue with the documentation

I, for one, misread it when I tried to implement this interface and I added a buffer, but @rsc suggested this could be done without buffering, which I think makes sense by reading the docs or skimming over some of the implementations. It was also not immediately clear to @katiehockman and @FiloSottile, who were involved in discussing a fix for #40928, so I am CCing them here to voice their opinion.

Issue with the API

Arguably this is not even a very user-friendly interface as short writes can cause Content-Type to be wrongly set even when the same response is being generated, and this may only happen in very peculiar situations, making it hard to debug (e.g. some short buffers passed to io.CopyBuffer or similar things).

Issues with the implementation

Current state (summarized in a table below)

We currently have several implementations of this, and it looks like they all behave in slightly different ways (the following list refers to Go 1.15.1):

  1. The cgi implementation only uses the first byte slice passed to Write to sniff, and only if Content-Type is not set, but does not care about Transfer-Encoding. (Before 1.15.1 it used to just set "text/html" without sniffing, which caused a vulnerability).

  2. fcgi is like cgi, but in addition it removes whatever Content-Type and Transfer-Encoding was set if the status is "204 No Content", even if there is a body (which is invalid HTTP, but we don't check for it)

  3. httptest.ResponseRecorder will only sniff if both Content-Type and Transfer-Encoding are missing and will use the first slice or string written to sniff Content-Type.

  4. The standard, main implementation is a bit more complex as it defaults to writing chunked responses, but the summary is that
    a) A non-nil and non-zero-length write will cause it to call the underlying writer implementation, which is a *bufio.Writer that wraps a chunkWriter (note that this introduces some buffering that depends on bufferBeforeChunkingSize, which currently is 2048)
    b) This will in turn (after some buffering that depends on bufio internal implementation) call chunkWriter.Write, which will do quite a lot, but the CT-relevant part is that if there is no Content-Encoding, no Content-Type and no Transfer-Encoding and something was eventually written to the response body then Content-Type will be sniffed with some data that is the minimum value between these:

  • bufferBeforeChunkingSize (currently 2048)
  • sniffLen (currently 512)
  • the actual length of the entire response (unless 0, in which case no sniffing will be performed)
  • whatever bufio decides to do (the current documentation doesn't seem to guarantee the buffer will be filled before the first Write call is performed, even if I think this will likely not change in the future)
    Note: the content-type that is sniffed will not be visible by accessing w.Header(), unlike all the other implementations.
  1. (not an implementation, but still odd interaction) http.ServeFile will not rely on the given ResponseWriter for C-T sniffing, but it will use mime.TypeByExtension (which only works if the path has an extension) and if that fails it will use http.DetectContentType on exactly sniffLen bytes of the file that has to be served. Note that if 1 or more content-types have been set, it will not sniff but it will arbitrarily drop all except the first one.

To summarize:

Implementation Condition to sniff Data sniff size
CGI No C-T Fist Write
FCGI No C-T, status != 204 First Write
ResponseRecorder No C-T, No T-E First Write
Main No C-T, No T-E, No C-E, non-zero-length data has been written Min(length, sniffLen, bufferSize)
ServeFile No C-T, No extension Min(sniffLen, fileLen)


Inconsistent behavior between tests and cgi

  1. An http.Handler implementation that sets "Transfer-Encoding" and then writes <!DOCTYPE HTML><html><body>Hello world</body></html> to the given http.ResponseWriter will:
  • Have a C-T of "text/plain" on cgi
  • Have a C-T of nothing in the response recorder

Inconsistent behavior between cgi and main

An http.Handler implementation that sets no "Content-Type" and then writes <!DOCTYPE HTML><html><body>Hello world</body></html> to the given http.ResponseWriter but in chunks shorter than 14 will:

  • Have a C-T of "text/plain" in cgi and tests
  • Have a C-T of "text/html" in the main implementation

Inconsistent behavior between cgi, tests and main

An http.Handler implementation that sets "Content-Encoding" and then writes <!DOCTYPE HTML><html><body>Hello world</body></html> to the given http.ResponseWriter but in chunks shorter than 14 will:

  • Have a C-T of "text/plain" in cgi and tests (which is bad)
  • Have no C-T in the main implementation
    If chunks are longer tests and CGI will have a content-type of "text/html".

Security implications

Server-Side Content-Type sniffing is generally a bad idea: any server that accepts any user data might fall victim to XSS unless proper sanitization and proper checks are performed during the upload phase, and those checks would be much easier to write if there was a consistent behavior wrt C-T sniffing.


A server allow users to upload a profile picture, and checks with http.DetectContentType if the uploaded file is an image before accepting it, then serves the file with http.ServeFile. If the image was called *.html it will render as html.

A server allow users to upload a profile picture, and checks that the uploaded file mime.TypeByExtension returns "image/*", then serves the file with io.Copy. If the image content was html, it will render as html.

A server allows users to upload videos and forces uploaded files to be (among other types) valid mp4. The implementation relies on C-T sniffing when serving the file. Valid mp4 files can start with <a, which we currently sniff as html when serving.

To be extra-sure, a server implementation has tests everywhere that all responses are served with "text/plain" content-type. The actual server might still sniff "text/html" just because it buffers more data before making a decision.


This has already caused some issues in the past (#31753 and #40928 come to mind) but there is probably more there to justify this behavior (it feels like most differences are due to incremental patches that only addressed the issues on the affected implementations that were reported).

I would kindly propose to sync the behaviors to all be like the main one (which seems the more coherent) and clarify in the documentation that this is the intended one.

We could even have an "internal" folder in http that will implement C-T sniffing once for all implementations, so we can be sure that they will not go out of sync again.

The main issue I can see is that this might break existing CGI and FCGI applications, and might make implementations of http.ResponseWriter that we don't know about not correct (the interface is fully exported).

/cc @bradfitz @FiloSottile @katiehockman @rsc @kele


@rsc also pointed out that (in addition to what is listed above) the sniffing will always set a charset of utf-8 for all html and xml responses, even if served from disk, even if the actual encoding differs. (Note that not setting charset on modern browsers would also default to utf-8 if XCTO nosniff is specified).

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