Lord help me blog from day to day
In such a tort defying way
That even when I forget to pray,
My prose will be accessible.
Help me find the pluggins do,
As the legislation doth accrue
I know the things I write for you
Must needs be heard by others
And when the blind can hear my words,
The dumb can comprehend,
May I forget the frown I’ve worn
While thinking still of others.
With apologies to Charles D. Meigs
Whoa dere folks, you have no idea what is galloping up behind us! It’s a corker…
Last month in a little noticed case in the US, a Federal Judge made a ruling that has implications for us all. We may think that the truly sensitive and the terminally offended have been making inroads into the freedom of the Internet, but they are but piffling flea bites compared to the implications of this case.
What the ruling – that the Internet is ‘a place of public accommodation’ – boils down to in plain English is that the Internet has the same status as a Public House, your local council offices, Disneyland, the O2 Arena, and anywhere else you can think of that has to comply with disabled accessibility legislation. It will be your responsibility to ensure that the blind reader has a voice over of your hastily crafted howl of anger at the latest government outrage, that the deaf have suitable sub-titles on your YouTube efforts, and one can only presume, that the terminally stupid have a simplified version in words of one syllable, to ensure that everyone has an ‘enjoyable and enriching experience’ when they land on your blog.
The lawyers are sharpening their quills already, for it matters not that you are penning your anguished prose from a bed sit in Bridlington – your reader may well be a one eyed Albanian asylum seeker in the US, libel law has long since established precedent that if he can access your words in the US, then you are publishing in the US, regardless of where your ‘server’ is.
Could YouTube be obligated to close-caption videos on the site? (This case seems to leave that door open.) Could every website using Flash have to redesign their sites for browsers that read the screen? I’m not creative enough to think of all the implications, but I can assure you that ADA plaintiffs’ lawyers will have a long check list of items worth suing over. Big companies may be able to afford the compliance and litigation costs, but the entry costs for new market participants could easily reach prohibitive levels.
One common argument for imposing accessibility obligations on physical businesses is that it is unrealistic to expect the disabled to simply ‘go somewhere else’ if the nearest business can’t accommodate their needs. The Internet doesn’t have territorial limitations – by extending this ruling to the Internet, the lawyers are in effect saying that everyone must make every part of their ‘public life’ accessible to anyone who wishes, word wide, to partake of the opportunity.
Now I don’t expect this to affect Joe Bloggs blogging from his back room in Bridlington overnight – but it doesn’t require too much imagination to realise that if Google get sued for failing to provide a voice over on their political blogs, they will immediately refuse to host any blog that doesn’t comply. Netfix, the company which the American Association for the Deaf successfully sued for failing to provide sub-titles on the videos which they streamed, may be able to afford the costly technology to comply with this ruling, individual bloggers won’t. Netfix may respond by not hosting movies which don’t carry sub-titles, I would expect Google to take the same route.
Whilst I can just about see why your local bank should pay for the adaptations that allow wheelchair access to the bank, I really cannot understand the logic when applied to the Internet. There are several voice recognition software packages available which could provide an audio translation of any blog – why are the US courts putting the onus on the Internet to solve the problem? Remember, this is just access for the disabled we are talking about here, what happens when Equality legislation uses this ruling as a precedent to ensure equality on the Internet?
Since it is a Saturday and I don’t feel too serious today, let us see where this ruling could take us…
Dick Puddlecote forced to write audio anti-smoking propaganda in case a blind reader wishes to read his blog and not be inconvenienced by having to search for another blog to feed his anti-smoking desires?
Over to you, the competition will be judged one year from today, the winner being the commentator who correctly foretold the ludicrous future….