I-Names, OpenID, and Cardspace

Kim Cameron has done another great post about how Cardspace and OpenID can work together, and specifically about the potential relationship of information cards and XRI i-names and i-numbers. This continued a thread that started with a post I did January 22 suggesting that it would be ideal for the CardSpace schema to support XRI identifiers as a specific claim type. In his response that same day, Kim said:

“…just a small clarification. Drummond talks about the “default CardSpace schema”. He’s really talking about the “default Self-Issued Card schema.”
CardSpace itself handles tokens of any type, containing claims of any type. There are no limitations on your schema if you create a managed card. I’ll make that clearer in my next post.
Further, we tried to keep the ”bootstrap” Self-Issued Card provider down to a minimal set of initial schema choices – precisely to leave room for a managed card ecology. But one of those initial claims is a URL… I thought an i-name or i-numbers would be able to go there. Is more needed?

As usual, Kim’s architectural instinct goes straight to the heart of the matter. In fact he poses such a important question that I’m going to provide a very detailed answer, starting with a use case involving the very blogs on which we are holding these conversations.

The Power of Abstraction

In Kim’s post, where he responds to this excellent post by Andy Dale explaining why the i-name and CardSpace value propositions are so complementary, Kim was particularly kind about the work we have been doing on identifiers at the OASIS XRI and XDI Technical Committees. He gives the example of using his own i-name on his blog. To quote his post (including the links):

By the way, I’ve been using my =Kim.Cameron i-name for a couple of years now – ever since I started this blog. It has been a life-saver. It has been my email conduit to my readers and allowed me to interact personally with many people all over the world – without ONE piece of spam.

Thank you again Kim for your kind words about what I believe is currently one of the most useful features of i-names – they come with contact pages that let you be reached on the net without opening yourself up to spam. But now let me drill down into a crucial feature of how i-names and contact pages work.

First, if you hover over Kim’s “=Kim.Cameron” i-name link above, the underlying href value you will see is:

http://2idi.com/contact/=kim.cameron

Interestingly enough, this is not the original XRI. XRIs are abstract identifiers, so to go to a specific location they are resolved into URIs. The HTTP URI at 2idi.com (2idi is Kim’s i-broker for his =Kim.Cameron i-name) is actually the default HTTP URI that =Kim.Cameron resolves to if you use an XRI resolver. (Why that particular URI is the default is beyond the scope of his post; the complete details are in the current XRI resolution spec.)

The original XRI for Kim’s i-name, in pure XRI format, is:

=kim.cameron

That’s right, there isn’t even an “xri:/” scheme name. That’s optional in XRI syntax because XRIs are protocol independent, so the XRI “scheme” is actually indicated by one of give global context symbols as the first character of the XRI (=, @, !, +, $). That doesn’t mean an XRI can’t use a domain name to specify the authority; it can, just after the prefix “$dns” (or “$ip” if you want to use an IP address). While this syntax is not yet recognized yet by today’s text editors and browsers, the same was true 10 years ago of www.*. That will come in time if XRIs prove as useful as those of us developing XRI infrastructure believe they will be.

To solve the problem of how XRIs can be used immediately with today’s Web infrastructure, the OASIS XRI TC defined an HTTP(S) XRI format called HXRIs. This adds an http(s) URI scheme and domain name as a prefix to the pure XRI. The two rules for an HXRI are: a) the domain name must start with “xri.” and b) the first character of the path must be an XRI global context symbol.

An HXRI is sent to a web server called an HXRI proxy server. Anyone can operate an HXRI proxy server just by creating an “xri.” subdomain and running an instance of XRI proxy resolver code available from the OpenXRI project (see dev.inames.net for more info). So the second form of Kim’s i-name is a HXRI that uses the xri.net public HXRI proxy resolver operated by XDI.org.

http://xri.net/=kim.cameron

If you click this URI, it calls the xri.net proxy resolver which looks up the target XRDS document (I can’t display it here but you can view the XML directly).

Since the xri.net proxy resolver was not given any other instructions about what service type to select, it selects the default service (again, out of scope for this post), which in this case is a contact service, identified by the following XRI in the Type element:

xri://+i-service*(+contact)*($v*1.0)

(Note that this XRI is in URI-normal form, which is why it shows the “xri:” scheme name.)

The xri.net proxy resolver then follows the instructions for composing the final target URI, which is to append the original pure XRI (=kim.cameron) to the value of the URI element (http://2idi.com/contact/). This gives you:

http://2idi.com/contact/=kim.cameron

While this is the HTTP URI that Kim cut-and-paste to put on his blog (probably because that’s what appears in his browser address bar when he goes to his contact page), that’s not actually the HTTP URI he should use if he wants the link to persist. He should use the original HXRI of:

http://xri.net/=kim.cameron

Why? Because this is the full abstract identifier that will continue to work even if Kim later changes i-brokers to a different i-broker (such as 1id.com, Encirca, Initech, or LinkSafe – more in the pipeline). In fact if Kim wants to, he can gain even greater persistence by making the underlying link for “=Kim.Cameron” to his i-number instead of his i-name. You wouldn’t see it unless you hovered over it, but this would look like:

http://xri.net/=!BC75.AD44.D370.C0A0

This is the safest and strongest link Kim could put up because unlink global i-names, global i-numbers will never be reassigned to another XRI registrant if the original registrant expires– all global i-numbers are permanently globally unique.

The moral of this story? While XRIs (in URI-normal form) are technically URIs, they are a special kind of URI intended to be resolved into other concrete URIs that actually indicate the current network location of a particular type of resource. An XRI by itself doesn’t indicate the current network location of anything. It’s purpose is to represent an abstract identity – the real world entity that has a representation somewhere on the network (or is in fact represented entirely by the identifier, in the case of purely abstract entities like tags).

Finally Answering the Question: XRI Claims for the Self-Issued Cardspace Schema

With this background laid, we can now finally start to answer Kim’s original question:

Further, we tried to keep the ”bootstrap” Self-Issued Card provider down to a minimal set of initial schema choices – precisely to leave room for a managed card ecology. But one of those initial claims is a URL… I thought an i-name or i-numbers would be able to go there. Is more needed?

My answer is that while it is technically possible to put an XRI (in URI-normal form) into a URI field, and such an XRI would carry the necessary identifier metadata to indicate its URI type (the xri: scheme name), this would be akin to putting a fax number in a phone number field. Yes, technically, a fax number is a phone number, but it’s a special kind of phone number capable of a special kind of phone service, and this is typically indicated to both humans and devices by providing an input field that is explicitly typed to contain a fax number, even though the format is identical to that of a regular phone number.

The same applies to XRIs—in fact even more so because:

  • There are explicitly two different kinds of XRIs: i-names and i-numbers. The first is reassignable and the second persistent.
  • XRIs are explicitly intended to come in synonym sets, for example one-or-more i-names paired with a persistent i-number. In fact when you register a global i-name with the XDI.org global registry service, you are automatically assigned a global i-number (unless you have one already, in which case you can choose to make the new i-name a synonym to your existing global i-number if you want).

So the bottom line is that for the Microsoft default schema for self-asserted cards to fully support XRI i-names and i-numbers as privacy-protected digital identifiers, I recommend that it include two claims for this purpose: one for a human-readable i-name, and one for a persistent i-number. Ideally both can support multiple instances, though in 99% of the cases only one i-number field will be needed, while in some cases users may wish to share more than one i-name synonym.

I look forward to working with Kim and Mike Jones and the CardSpace team to figuring out the best way forward to full interoperability — and synergy — between CardSpace, XRI i-names and i-numbers, and OpenID.

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About Drummond Reed

Internet entrepreneur in identity, personal data, and trust frameworks
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