12.39. DD 39: Taler Wallet Browser Integration Considerations

12.39.1. Summary

This design document discusses considerations for integrating the GNU Taler wallet with browsers and highlights difficulties with the implementation of a GNU Taler wallet as a cross-browser WebExtension.

12.39.2. Motivation

GNU Taler is a payment system based on open standards with a free and open source reference implementation. The GNU Taler wallet is the main component used by end users to manage their electronic cash balance and payments.

Payments with GNU Taler are typically initiated via a QR code or link that contains a taler://pay/{merchant}/{order_id} URI. Navigating to such a link should result in a context switch to the wallet, where the payment can can be approved/declined, and the user is subsequently redirected to the merchant’s website again.

Other taler:// URIs (for withdrawals, refunds, etc.) are also commonly used, but not explicitly discussed in this document, as very similar considerations apply.

There are multiple reference implementations available for multiple platforms (command line, Android, iOS, WebExtension).

While native applications can register themselves as a handler for the taler URI scheme, the story is different for WebExtensions: There is currently no reasonable, cross-platform mechanism that allows a WebExtension to register itself as the handler for the taler URI scheme.

This is unfortunate, as a WebExtension could otherwise easily provide a Taler wallet implementation without requiring the user to install a native App, providing a better and safer user experience.

The problems with individual browsers are:

  • Firefox allows specifying protocol_handlers in the extension manifest. However, this list only allows schemes with the prefix ext+ and schemes that are included in an allowlist. The taler URI scheme is not part of this list yet.

  • Chromium / Google Chrome allows extensions to use the registerProtocolHandler API. However, the same allowlist restrictions apply. Furthermore, the registered protocol scheme is not listed as the extension’s required/optional permissions. Instead, a different permission prompt is dynamically shown to the user.

  • Safari currently neither supports registerProtocolHandler nor the protocol_handlers mechanism.

  • Opera does not seem to have any support for WebExtension protocol handlers either.

Another issue is that Websites can’t easily find out whether a browser extension handling the taler:// protocol is installed. To avoid using this information for fingerprinting, anchors could provide an alternative href in case the main one is not handled, such as:

<a href="taler://pay/..." handler-unavailable-href="https://wallet.taler.net/">...</a>

12.39.3. Requirements

  • No vendor lock-in: The integration should not require merchant Websites to rely on a particular list of extension IDs but instead any WebExtension to potentially handle taler:// URIs or other mechanisms that Websites can use to interact with Taler wallets.

  • Security: The integration mechanism should require as few permissions as possible.

  • Ergonomic user experience: As few clicks and permission prompts as possible should be shown to the user.

  • Ergonomic developer experience: The code size and effort to trigger a Taler payment on a merchant’s Website should be minimized.

  • Forward compatibility: The integration mechanism should work smoothly with future browsers that have native, built-in support for Taler payments.

12.39.4. Alternatives

  • JavaScript API: The WebExtension could inject a JavaScript API into Websites that allow interacting with the Taler wallet. This is the approach taken by the MetaMask crypto wallet. It requires excessive permissions, may break some Websites (https://github.com/brave/browser-laptop/issues/13711) and requires merchants to include extra JavaScript.

    • This type of interaction is useful for Single Page Apps and might be provided by the GNU Taler wallet reference implementation, at least when the user grants additional permissions.

    • Unfortunately, browsers currently do not provide a safe way for the communication between a WebExtension and the page without excessive permissions. This especially applies if the Website does not know the extension’s ID. Hard-coding the extension IDs would violate the “no vendor lock-in requirement”.

  • Handling taler:// URIs by overriding the onclick handler of a HTML elements. This requires excessive permissions but would be a viable work-around, at least on pages that opt in with a special <meta name="taler-support" content="uri"> tag. It does not work in all use-cases, for example when a navigation to a taler:// URI is initiated programmatically or by pasting the URI in the browser’s address bar.

  • Triggering interactions with the taler:// URI in a Taler: HTTP header. This approach would allow browsers with native Taler support (or a WebExtension) to handle payment/withdrawal initiations directly, without rendering a page that shows the QR code or link. However, the WebExtension APIs do not allow extensions to read particular headers without excessive permissions. Furthermore, more recent versions of Chrome/Chromium do not allow blocking processing of headers, leading to flickering when the extension redirects based on the presence of the Taler: header.

  • Browser and wallet presence detection. Merchants’ Websites could include custom code to detect the browser and/or presence of a Taler WebExtension and show different instructions to guide the user towards processing the payment or to show ext+taler URIs instead of taler URIs. This is not a viable solution, as it requires a lot of extra and brittle logic on merchants’ Websites.

  • Always use ext+taler URIs. This would help with Firefox. Bad for forward compatibility, as we have already provisionally registered the taler URI scheme.

  • Web Payments API: Using the Web Payments API is not possible, because current browsers do not allow specifying a WebExtension as a handler. Furthermore, the Web Payments API would not support the withdrawal flow (taler://withdraw URIs).