Did you catch the story that was posted over at MobileRead yesterday about the major ereader companies trying to get out of complying with accessibility laws?
The title is a pretty innocuous phrasing of a great big bombshell. A coalition of e-reader manufacturers consisting of Amazon, Kobo and Sony, filed a petition requesting the FCC waive its rules requiring e-readers to be accessible by people with disabilities.
I wouldn’t read too much into the petition or the uproar that will soon surround it. IMO MobileRead is misreading what the coalition is asking for in their petition.
While there is a petition for a waiver from accessibility rules, the waiver would only cover an exemption from a single regulation, not all accessibility regulations. I’ll explain the regulation in question, but first let me give you an idea just how narrowly focused this waiver really is.
If this waiver is granted it will not, for example, affect the regulations that require schools, institutions, and libraries to provide electronic equipment that can be used by the disabled.
The lawsuits won by the NFB against the Sacramento Public Library and the Philly Free Library will not be affected by this waiver. Similar lawsuits filed in the future will also not be affected; schools and libraries will still have to support the disabled. That’s not the only regulation that will be unaffected, but IMO it is one of the more important ones.
So what is Amazon et al hoping to accomplish here?
In the words of the petition, they want to be exempted from:
Sections 716 and 717 of the Communications Act of 1934, as Enacted by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010
The latter section appears to consist only of rules about documenting compliance with the former section so I’m going to refer to them as a single regulation. According to the FCC these new regulations, which weren’t technically passed as laws, are intended to accomplish the following:
Section 716 of the Act requires that providers of advanced communications services and
manufacturers of equipment used for advanced communications services make their services and products accessible to people with disabilities, unless it is not achievable to do so. Where it is not achievable to do so, these covered entities must make their services and equipment compatible with commonly used assistive technologies. Section 717 requires new recordkeeping and enforcement procedures for these covered entities.
The new regulation was announced in 2011 and it’s not clear whether it is already in effect. This is a rather broadly written regulation that covers everything from ISPs (not kidding) to tablets to ereaders to reading apps.
Just to be clear, the ereader makers are only asking for ereaders to be exempt from this regulation; they didn’t ask for an exemption for their platforms and they didn’t ask for an exemption for their reading apps or tablets.
I am specifically bringing up reading apps and tablets because I want to point out the accessibility features that the several ereader makers have added in the past couple years. B&N, for example, announced late last year that they would add accessibility features to the Nook HD. Amazon made a similar announcement about the KFHD, and they also released a new version of the Kindle app for iPhone and iPad. I would bet that the new features were added in response to this regulation, though I cannot say for sure.
So at first glance this looks like companies trying to avoid complying with regulations, but in reality what we have here are companies that are already complying with the new rules. They just want a waiver so that ereaders won’t have to be changed in order to comply with the law.
This waiver would cover not just the branded ereaders but also the more basic devices on the market, including devices like the Nook Touch or Kindle Paperwhite which never could be updated to comply with the law (no sound). But it would not cover the most basic and cheaper devices which for example lack Wifi. The lack of communication ability in certain devices renders this regulation moot.
The coalition is asking for an exemption for ereaders because they are a unique class:
- they have no LCD screen;
- they have no camera;
- they are not offered or shipped to consumers with built-in email, IM, VoIP or other similar ACS client applications and the device manufacturer does not develop ACS applications for them;
- they are marketed to consumers as reading devices and promotional material about them does not tout the capability to access ACS.
That is an interesting argument but I am going to have to come out in opposition.
Just because the most basic ereaders lack accessibility features and just because ereaders serve a tiny niche market doesn’t mean that ereaders are special snowflakes. Furthermore, the details that define ereaders and separate them from tablets aren’t inherent in the very concept of an ereader but came from deliberate choices to make limited function machines as a way of reducing cost.
There is no technical reason preventing the ereader makers from adding accessibility features to their next models; it’s just that they don’t want to do so. Or in the case of Amazon, they don’t want to do it again.
Amazon had already moved a step in the right direction with the release of the Kindle Touch and the Kindle 3. But then they released the Paperwhite, which is essentially the Kindle Touch minus the sound (but with the better screen). It’s not clear why Amazon did that but it could prove to be a costly mistake.
In conclusion, I think the ereader makers are on the wrong side of this issue just based on existing market realities. Sure, they might get the waiver they seek, but wouldn’t it be a better idea to comply with the regulation?
If ereaders met accessibility standards then they could be sold to libraries, schools and everyone else who has to be careful what they buy.
In case you didn’t know, many of those potential customers are currently buying accessible iPads at $500 a pop. If you were an ereader maker wouldn’t you want to pursue that market with a $100 ereader? I would.
images by kodomut,