Security Safe HTML

Cross-Site-Scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities are a class of web application security bugs that allow an attacker to execute arbitrary malicious JavaScript in the context of a victim’s browser session. In turn, such malicious script can for example steal the user’s session credentials (resulting in hijacking and full compromise of the user’s session), extract and leak sensitive or confidential data from the victim’s account, or execute transactions chosen by the attacker in the name of the victim.

In GWT applications, many aspects of a web-application’s UI are expressed in terms of abstractions (such as Widgets) that do not expose a potential for untrusted data to be interpreted as HTML markup or script. As such, GWT apps are inherently less prone to XSS vulnerabilities than applications built on top of frameworks where UI is rendered directly as HTML (such as server-side templating systems, with the exception of templating systems that automatically escape template variables according to the HTML context the variable appears in).

However, GWT applications are not inherently safe from XSS vulnerabilities.

A large class of potential XSS vulnerabilities in GWT applications arises from the use of methods that cause the browser to evaluate their argument as HTML, for example, setInnerHTML(String), setHTML(String), as well as the constructors of HTML-containing widgets such as HTML. If an application passes a string to such a method where the string is even partially derived from untrusted input, the application is vulnerable to XSS. In this context, untrusted input includes immediate user input, data the client app has received from the server and which may have been provided to the server by a different, malicious user, as well as values obtained from a history token read from a URL fragment.

This document introduces a new security package and accompanying coding guidelines that help developers avoid this class of XSS vulnerabilities, while minimizing overhead in run-time and development effort. A primary goal of the coding guidelines is to facilitate high-confidence code-reviews of applications for the absence of this class of XSS bugs.

Note that this document does not address other classes of XSS vulnerabilities that GWT applications may be vulnerable to, such as server-side XSS, as well as other classes of client-side XSS (for example, calling eval() on an untrusted string in native JavaScript.)

  1. Coding Guidelines
  2. Coding Guidelines for Developers of Widget Client Code
    1. Prefer Plain-Text Widgets
    2. Use UiBinder for Declarative Layout
    3. Use the SafeHtml Type to Represent XSS-Safe HTML
    4. Creating SafeHtml Values
  3. Coding Guidelines for Widget Developers
    1. Provide SafeHtml Methods and Constructors
    2. “Unwrap” SafeHtml Close to the Value’s Use
  4. Caveats and Limitations

Coding Guidelines

The goals of these guidelines are two-fold:

  1. A GWT application whose code-base these guidelines have been consistently and comprehensively applied to should be free of the class of XSS vulnerabilities due to attacker-controlled strings being evaluated as HTML in the browser.
  2. The code should be structured such that it is easily reviewable for absence of this class of XSS – for each use of a potentially XSS-prone method such as Element.setInnerHTML it should be “obvious” that this use can’t result in an XSS vulnerability.

The second goal is based on the desire to achieve a high degree of confidence in the absence of this class of bugs. When reviewing code, it is often difficult and error-prone to determine whether or not a value passed to some method may be controlled by an attacker, especially if the value is received via a long chain of assignments and method calls.

Hence, the central idea behind these guidelines is to use a type to encapsulate strings that are safe to use in HTML context, construct safe HTML into instances of this type, and use this type to “transport” strings as close as possible to a code site where they are used as HTML. Such a use is then easily apparent to be free of XSS vulnerabilities, given the type’s contract (as well as Java’s type-safety) as an assumption.

Coding Guidelines for Developers of Widget Client Code

The following guidelines are aimed at developers of client-code that uses existing widget libraries, in particular the core widget library that is distributed with GWT.

Prefer Plain-Text Widgets

The best way to avoid XSS bugs, and to write code that is easily seen to be free of XSS vulnerabilities, is to simply not use API methods and widgets that interpret parameters as HTML unless strictly necessary.

For example, it is not uncommon to see GWT application code such as:

HTML widget = new HTML("Some text in the widget");



In the first example, it’s obvious that the value passed to the HTML constructor cannot result in an XSS vulnerability: The value doesn’t contain HTML markup, and furthermore is a compile-time constant and hence cannot possibly be manipulated by an attacker. In the second example, it may be obvious to a reviewer that the call is safe if the variable someText is assigned to “nearby” in the code; however if the supplied value is passed in via a parameter through a few layers of method calls this is much less obvious. Also, such a scenario may well result in a bug in a future code iteration if calling code is changed by a developer who doesn’t realize that the value will be used in an HTML context.

In such situations, it is preferred to use the non-HTML equivalent, that is, the Label widget and the setText method, respectively, both of which are always safe from XSS even if the string passed to the Label constructor or the setText method is under the control of an attacker. Similarly, use setInnerText instead of setInnerHTML on DOM elements.

Use UiBinder for Declarative Layout

Using GWT UiBinder is the preferred approach to declaratively creating Widget and DOM structures in GWT applications. In addition to the primary benefits of UiBinder (clean separation of code and layout, performance, built-in internationalization support), using UiBinder also typically results in code that is much less prone to XSS vulnerabilities than code that uses an ad-hoc approach to assembling HTML markup to, say, be placed into a HTML widget.

Often, the “leaf nodes” in the UiBinder-declared layout will be widgets whose data content is plain text rather than HTML markup. As such, they are naturally populated via setText rather than setHTML or equivalent, which completely avoids the potential for an XSS vulnerability.

Use the SafeHtml Type to Represent XSS-Safe HTML

There will be occasions where using UiBinder or similar approaches is not practical or too inconvenient. The package provides types and classes that can be used to write such code and yet have confidence that it is free of XSS.

The package provides an interface, SafeHtml, to represent the subset of strings that are safe to use in an HTML context, in the sense that evaluating the string as HTML in a browser will not result in script execution. More specifically, all implementations of this interface must adhere to the type contract that invoking the asString() method on an instance will always return a string that is HTML-safe in the above sense. In addition, the type’s contract requires that the concatenation of any two SafeHtml-wrapped strings must itself be safe to use in an HTML context.

With the introduction of the package, all of the core GWT library’s widgets that take String arguments that are interpreted as HTML have been augmented with corresponding methods that take a SafeHtml-typed value. In particular, all widgets that implement the HasHTML (or HasDirectionalHtml) interface also implement the HasSafeHtml (or HasDirectionalSafeHtml, respectively) interface. These interfaces define:

public void setHTML(SafeHtml html);
public void setHTML(SafeHtml html, Direction dir);

as safe alternatives to setHTML(String) and setHTML(String, Direction).

For example, the HTML widget has been augmented with the following constructors and methods:

public class HTML extends Label 
    implements HasDirectionalHtml, HasDirectionalSafeHtml {
  // ...
  public HTML(SafeHtml html);
  public HTML(SafeHtml html, Direction dir);
  public void setHTML(SafeHtml html);
  public void setHTML(SafeHtml html, Direction dir);

A central aspect of these coding guidelines is that developers of GWT applications should not use constructors and methods with String-typed parameters whose values are interpreted as HTML, and instead use the SafeHtml equivalent.

Creating SafeHtml Values

The safehtml package provides a number of tools to create instances of SafeHtml that cover many common scenarios in which GWT applications typically manipulate strings containing HTML markup:

  • A builder class that facilitates the creation of SafeHtml values by safely combining developer-controlled snippets of HTML markup with (possibly attacker-controlled) values.
  • A templating mechanism that allows the definition of snippets of structured HTML markup, into which values are safely interpolated at run-time.
  • I18N Messages can return localized messages in the form of a SafeHtml.
  • A number of convenience methods are available to create SafeHtml values from strings.
  • A simple HTML sanitizer that accepts a limited subset of HTML markup in its input, and HTML-escapes any HTML markup not within that subset.

Each of the above mechanisms has been carefully reviewed with respect to adherence to the SafeHtml type contract.


In many scenarios, the strings that will be used in an HTML context are concatenated partially from trusted strings (for example, snippets of HTML markup defined within the application’s source) and untrusted strings that may be under the control of a potential attacker. The SafeHtmlBuilder class provides a builder interface that supports this use-case while ensuring that the untrusted parts of the string are appropriately escaped.

Consider this usage example:

public void showItems(List<String> items) {
  SafeHtmlBuilder builder = new SafeHtmlBuilder();
  for (String item : items) {

SafeHtmlBuilder’s appendHtmlConstant method is used to append a constant snippet of HTML to the builder, without escaping the argument. The appendEscaped method in contrast will HTML-escape its string argument before appending.

To allow SafeHtmlBuilder to adhere to the SafeHtml contract, code using it must in turn adhere to the following rules:

  1. The argument of appendHtmlConstant must be a string literal (or, more generally, must be fully determined at compile time).
  2. The string provided must not end within an HTML tag. For example, the following use would be illegal because the argument of the first appendHtmlConstant contains an incomplete <a> tag; the string ends in the context of the value of the href attribute of that tag:
builder.appendHtmlConstant("<a href='").appendEscaped(url).appendHtmlConstant("'>")

The first rule is necessary to ensure that strings passed to appendHtmlConstant cannot possibly be under the control of an attacker. The second rule is necessary because untrusted strings used inside an HTML tag attribute can result in script execution even if they are HTML-escaped. In the above example, script execution could occur if the value of url is javascript:evil_js_code().

When executing client-side in hosted mode, or server-side with assertions enabled, appendHtmlConstant parses its argument and checks that it satisfies the second constraint. For performance reasons, this check is not performed in production mode in client code, and with assertions disabled on the server.

SafeHtmlBuilder also provides the append(SafeHtml) method. The contents of the provided SafeHtml will be appended to the builder without prior escaping (due to the SafeHtml contract, it can be assumed to be HTML-safe). This method allows HTML snippets wrapped as SafeHtml to be composed into larger SafeHtml snippets.

Creating HTML using the SafeHtmlTemplates Interface

To facilitate the creation of SafeHtml instances containing more complex HTML markup, the safehtml package provides a compile-time bound template mechanism which can be used as in this example:

public class MyWidget ... {
// ...
  public interface MyTemplates extends SafeHtmlTemplates {
    @Template("<span class=\"{3}\">{0}: <a href=\"{1}\">{2}</a></span>")
    SafeHtml messageWithLink(SafeHtml message, String url, String linkText,
        String style);
  private static final MyTemplates TEMPLATES =
  public void useTemplate(...) {
    SafeHtml message;
    String url;
    String linkText;
    String style;
    // ...
    InlineHTML messageWithLinkInlineHTML = new InlineHTML(
        TEMPLATES.messageWithLink(message, url, linkText, style));
    // ...

Instantiating a SafeHtmlTemplates interface with GWT.create() returns an instance of an implementation that is generated at compile time. The code generator parses the value of each template method’s @Template annotation as an (X)HTML template, with template variables denoted by curly-brace placeholders that refer by index to the corresponding template method parameter.

All methods in SafeHtmlTemplates interfaces must have a return type of SafeHtml. The compile-time generated implementations of such methods are constructed such that they return instances of SafeHtml that indeed honor the SafeHtml type contract. The code generator accomplishes this guarantee by a combination of compile-time checks and run-time checks in the generated code (see however the note below with regards to a limitation of the current implementation):

  • The template is parsed with a lenient HTML stream parser that accepts HTML similar to what would typically be accepted by a web browser. The parser does not require that templates consist of balanced HTML tags. However, the parser and template code generator enforce the following constraints on input templates: Template parameters may not appear in HTML comments, parameters may not appear in a Javascript context (e.g., inside a<script> tag, or in an onclick handler), parameters in HTML attributes can only appear in the value and must been closed in quotes (e.g., <tag attribute="{0}"> would be allowed, <tag {0} attribute={1}> would not), and the template cannot end inside a tag or inside an attribute. For example, the following is not a valid template:
<span><{0} class="xyz" {1}="..."/></span>
  • The generated code passes actual template parameters through appropriate sanitizer and escaping methods depending on the HTML context that the template parameter appears in and the declared type of the corresponding template method parameter, as described below.

Limitation: The current implementation of the parser cannot guarantee the SafeHtml contract for templates with template variables in a CSS context (that is, within a style attribute or tag). When the parser encounters encounters a template with a variable in a style attribute or tag (e.g., <div style="{0}">), a warning will be emitted. Developers are advised to carefully review these cases to ensure that parameters passed to the template are from a trusted source or suitably sanitized.

Template Processing

The choice of escaping and/or sanitization applied to template parameters is made according to the following rules:

Parameters in inner HTML context

Parameters appearing in plain inner HTML context (for example, parameter {0} and {2} in the MyWidget example) are processed as follows:

  • If the declared type of the corresponding template method parameter is SafeHtml (for example, parameter message in the MyWidget example), the parameter’s actual value is emitted without further validation or escaping.
  • If the declared type is String (for example, parameter linkText in the example), the parameter’s actual value is HTML-escaped at run-time before being emitted.
  • If the declared type is a primitive type (for example, a numeric or Boolean type), the value is converted to String and emitted, but not passed through an escape method because the String representation of primitive types is always free of HTML special characters.
  • If the declared type is any other type, the parameter’s value is first converted to String and then HTML escaped.
Parameters in attribute context

Parameters appearing in an attribute context (for example, {1} and {3} in the example) are treated as follows:

  • If the declared type of the corresponding template method parameter is not String, the parameter’s value is first converted to String.
  • The parameter is then HTML-escaped before it is emitted.

Note that parameters with a declared type of SafeHtml are not treated specially if they occur in an attribute context (that is, such parameters will not skip escaping). This is because SafeHtml strings can contain non-escaped HTML special characters (as long as such HTML markup is safe); however no non-escaped HTML special characters are allowed within an attribute’s value.

Parameters in URI-valued attribute context

Parameters that appear at the start of a URI-valued attribute such as src or href, for example parameter {1} but not {3} in the example, are treated specially:

  • Before HTML escaping, the parameter’s value is sanitized to ensure it is safe to use as the value of a URI-valued HTML attribute. This sanitization is performed as follows (see UriUtils.sanitizeUri(String)):
    • URIs that don’t have a scheme are considered safe and are used as is.
    • URIs whose scheme equals one of http, https, ftp, mailto are considered safe and are used as is.
    • Any other URI is considered unsafe and discarded; instead the “void” URI “#” is inserted into the template.

Limitation: There is no escaping mechanism for the parameter syntax. For example, it is impossible to write a template that results in a literal output containing a substring of the form {0}.

Convenience Methods

The SafeHtmlUtils class provides a number of convenience methods to create SafeHtml values from strings:

  • SafeHtmlUtils.fromString(String s) HTML-escapes its argument and returns the result wrapped as a SafeHtml.
  • SafeHtmlUtils.fromSafeConstant(String s) Returns a compile-time constant string wrapped as a SafeHtml, without escaping the value. To allow fromSafeConstant to adhere to the SafeHtml contract, code using it must in turn adhere to the same constraints that apply to SafeHtmlBuilder.appendHtmlConstant:
    1. The argument of fromSafeConstant must be a string literal (or, more generally, must be fully determined at compile time).
    2. The string provided must not end within an HTML tag. For example, the following use would be illegal because the value passed to fromSafeConstant contains an incomplete <a> tag; the string ends in the context of the value of the href attribute of that tag:
SafeHtml safeHtml = SafeHtmlUtils.fromSafeConstant("<a href='");
  • SafeHtmlUtils.fromTrustedString(Strings)

    Returns its argument as a SafeHtml, without performing any form of validation or escaping. It is the developer’s responsibility to ensure that values passed to this method adhere to the SafeHtml contract.

    Use of this method is strongly discouraged; it is intended to only be used in scenarios where existing code produces values that are known to satisfy the SafeHtml type contract, but such code cannot be easily refactored to itself produce SafeHtml-typed values.


SimpleHtmlSanitizer produces instances of SafeHtml from input strings by applying a simple sanitization algorithm at run-time.

It is intended for scenarios where code receives strings containing simple HTML markup, for example, from a server-side backend. An example might be search snippets with query terms marked by <b> tags, as in "<b>Flowers</b>, roses, plants &amp; gift baskets delivered. Order <b>flowers</b> from ...".

A GWT application that needs to render such strings can’t simply HTML-escape them, since they do contain legitimate HTML. At the same time, the developer of the application might not want to rely on the backend that produced the snippets to be entirely bug free, and to never produce strings that may contain third-party controlled and potentially malicious HTML markup. Instead, such strings can be wrapped as a SafeHtml by passing them through SimpleHtmlSanitizer, for example:

SafeHtml snippetHtml = SimpleHtmlSanitizer.sanitizeHtml(snippet);

SimpleHtmlSanitizer uses a simple sanitization algorithm that accepts the following markup:

  • A white-list of basic HTML tags without attributes, including <b>,<em>, <i>, <h1>, ..., <h5>, <hr>, <ul>,<ol>, <li> and the corresponding end tags.
  • HTML entities and entity references, such as &#39;, &#x2F;,&amp;, &quot;,etc.

HTML markup in this subset will not be escaped; HTML meta-characters that are not part of a sub-string in the above set will be escaped.

For example, the string:

foo < bar &amp; that is <em>good</em>, <span style="foo: bar">...

will be sanitized into:

foo &amp;lt; bar &amp;amp; that is <em>good</em>, &amp;lt;span style=&amp;quot;foo: bar&amp;quot;&amp;gt;...

Note that SimpleHtmlSanitizer does not make any guarantees that the resulting HTML will be well-formed, and that, for example, all remaining tags in the HTML are balanced.

The result of sanitization is returned as a SafeHtml and can be appended to a SafeHtmlBuilder without getting escaped.

Coding Guidelines for Widget Developers

Developers of widgets (or other library components) should consider the HTML safety of the widget under development. If possible, widgets should be designed and implemented such that their use cannot result in XSS vulnerabilities under any circumstance. If doing so is not possible, the widget should be designed and implemented such that it is straightforward and natural for developers of client code to use it safely, and furthermore such that it is straightforward for a code reviewer to determine if a given use of the widget is safe.

For example, a given instantiation of GWT’s HTML widget cannot result in an XSS vulnerability as long as its use does not involve calls to the HTML(String) and related constructors, or the HTML.setHTML(String) or HTML.setHTML(String, Direction) methods. Code that uses the equivalent SafeHtml constructors and methods is always safe.

Provide SafeHtml Methods and Constructors

Widgets with constructors or methods with an argument that is interpreted as HTML should provide equivalent constructors and methods that take SafeHtml values. In particular, widgets that implement HasHTML or HasDirectionalHtml should also implement HasSafeHtml or HasDirectionalSafeHtml, respectively.

“Unwrap” SafeHtml Close to the Value’s Use

The values wrapped inside a SafeHtml will eventually be used in an HTML context and, for example, used to set a DOM element’s innerHTML.

To make widget implementations as “obviously safe” as possible, the String content of a SafeHtml should be extracted as close as possible to such a use. For example, a SafeHtml value should be unwrapped immediately before it is assigned to innerHTML, and no earlier:


Widgets that are composed of other widgets should not unwrap SafeHtml values when initializing sub-widgets, and instead pass the SafeHtml to the sub-widget. For example, write:

public class MyPanel extends HorizontalPanel {
  InlineHTML messageWidget;
  SafeHtml currentMessage;

  public void setMessage(SafeHtml newMessage) {
    currentMessage = newMessage;

  private void updateUi() {

instead of:

public class MyPanel extends HorizontalPanel {
  InlineHTML messageWidget;
  String currentMessage;

  public void setMessage(SafeHtml newMessage) {
    currentMessage = newMessage.asString();

  private void updateUi() {
    // Potentially unsafe call to setHTML(String)

While both implementations provide a safe external interface, the second implementation is not as obviously free from XSS vulnerabilities as the first: It involves a call to setHTML(String) that is not inherently safe. The value passed to setHTML(String) is obtained from a field. To determine if this widget is free from XSS vulnerabilities, a code reviewer would have to inspect every assignment to the field and verify that it can only be assigned safe HTML. In a trivial example as the above this is quite straightforward, but in more complex, real-world code this a potentially time consuming and error prone process.

Caveats and Limitations

Comprehensive and consistent use of SafeHtml during development of a GWT application can substantially reduce the incidence of XSS vulnerabilities in that application. However, it does not guarantee the absence of XSS vulnerabilities.

XSS vulnerabilities may be present in such an application for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • There may be a bug in code that creates SafeHtml values that causes it to sometimes produce values that violate the type contract. If such a value is used as HTML (for instance, assigned to a DOM element’s innerHTML property), an XSS vulnerability may be present.
  • Application code may be incorrectly using SafeHtmlBuilder.appendHtmlConstant or SafeHtmlUtils.fromSafeConstant. For example, if one of these methods is passed a value that is not program-controlled as required, but rather is derived from an external input, an XSS vulnerability may be present.
  • Application code may be incorrectly using SafeHtmlUtils.fromTrustedString. If this method is used to SafeHtml-wrap a value that is based on third-party inputs and is not strictly guaranteed to adhere to the SafeHtml type contract, an XSS vulnerability may arise.
  • Application code may have XSS bugs that are not due the use of external inputs in HTML contexts, and are beyond the scope of the SafeHtml library and guidelines.