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x-www-form-urlencoded

Introduction

One of the challenges faced by the designers of the Web was dealing with the differences between operating systems. These differences can cause problems with URLs: for example, some operating systems allow spaces in filenames; some don’t. Most operating systems won’t complain about a # sign in a filename; but in a URL, a # sign indicates that the filename has ended, and a fragment identifier follows. Other special characters, non-alphanumeric characters, and so on, all of which may have a special meaning inside a URL or on another operating system, present similar problems. Furthermore, Unicode was not yet ubiquitous when the Web was invented, so not all systems could handle characters such as é and . To solve these problems, characters used in URLs must come from a fixed subset of ASCII, specifically:

  • The capital letters A–Z
  • The lowercase letters a–z
  • The digits 0–9
  • The punctuation characters – _ . ! ~ * ‘ (and ,)

The characters : / & ? @ # ; $ + = and % may also be used, but only for their specified purposes. If these characters occur as part of a path or query string, they and all other characters should be encoded.

The encoding is very simple. Any characters that are not ASCII numerals, letters, or the punctuation marks specified earlier are converted into bytes and each byte is written as a percent sign followed by two hexadecimal digits. Spaces are a special case because they’re so common. Besides being encoded as %20, they can be encoded as a plus sign (+). The plus sign itself is encoded as %2B. The / # = & and ? characters should be encoded when they are used as part of a name, and not as a separator between parts of the URL.

The URL class does not encode or decode automatically. You can construct URL objects that use illegal ASCII and non-ASCII characters and/or percent escapes. Such characters and escapes are not automatically encoded or decoded when output by methods such as getPath() and toExternalForm(). You are responsible for making sure all such characters are properly encoded in the strings used to construct a URL object. Luckily, Java provides URLEncoder and URLDecoder classes to cipher strings in this format.

URLEncoder

To URL encode a string, pass the string and the character set name to the URLEncoder.encode() method. For example:

String encoded = URLEncoder.encode("This*string*has*asterisks", "UTF-8");

URLEncoder.encode() returns a copy of the input string with a few changes. Any non‐alphanumeric characters are converted into % sequences (except the space, underscore, hyphen, period, and asterisk characters). It also encodes all non-ASCII characters. The space is converted into a plus sign. This method is a little overaggressive; it also converts tildes, single quotes, exclamation points, and parentheses to percent escapes, even though they don’t absolutely have to be. However, this change isn’t forbidden by the URL specification, so web browsers deal reasonably with these excessively encoded URLs.

Although this method allows you to specify the character set, the only such character set you should ever pick is UTF-8. UTF-8 is compatible with the IRI specification, the URI class, modern web browsers, and more additional software than any other encoding you could choose.

UrlDecoder

The corresponding URLDecoder class has a static decode() method that decodes strings encoded in x-www-form-url-encoded format. That is, it converts all plus signs to spaces and all percent escapes to their corresponding character:

public static String decode(String s, String encoding) throws UnsupportedEncodingException

If you have any doubt about which encoding to use, pick UTF-8. It’s more likely to be correct than anything else. An IllegalArgumentException should be thrown if the string contains a percent sign
that isn’t followed by two hexadecimal digits or decodes into an illegal sequence. Since URLDecoder does not touch non-escaped characters, you can pass an entire URL to it rather than splitting it into pieces first. For example:

String input = "https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&as_q=Java&as_epq=I%2FO";
String output = URLDecoder.decode(input, "UTF-8");
System.out.println(output);
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