Blog Date: 
Monday, February 10, 2014
Lauren McLarney

Last week, the FCC announced that a class of “basic e-readers” would be exempt from accessibility requirements over the next year.  At first glance, this announcement seems like a battle lost, considering that the National Federation of the Blind has spent the last eight years fighting the War for Access to make digital books available to the blind.  But in reality, this is a huge victory.  The Coalition of E-Reader Manufacturers (Amazon, Sony and Kobo) requested an indefinite waiver, and after persistent advocacy from the disability community, led by the NFB, the FCC saw through the smokescreen. It said:

“We limit the term of the waiver to one year…rather than grant the Coalition’s request for an indefinite waiver. We believe that, given the swift pace at which e-reader and tablet technologies are evolving and the expanding role of ACS in electronic devices, granting a waiver beyond this period is outweighed by the public interest and congressional intent to ensure that Americans with disabilities have access to advanced communications technologies.”

The accessibility requirements in question apply to advanced communication services (ACS) in consumer electronics under the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).  #acronymoverload

The FCC has authorization to grant waivers for products that may have incidental ACS but are nonetheless designed for purposes other than actually using those services.  Even though the ACS features of e-readers are the very features that set the devices apart from print books, the coalition made the argument that e-readers are designed and marketed primarily for reading, and that the ACS in e-readers is “rudimentary,” “theoretical,” “ancillary,” and are not even intended to be used, even on a secondary basis!  When we were finished laughing, we read the coalition’s assertion that rendering ACS accessible on e-readers “would not yield a meaningful benefit to individuals with disabilities.” Yes, that is a real quote.  We stopped laughing and got to work.

The NFB and twenty-two other organizations of and for people with print disabilities filed comments.  We also initiated a letter-writing campaign, sending 125 letters to the FCC from blind people opposing the waiver.  The FCC heard our outrage and agreed to meet.  After seeing that a user can easily Facebook chat between a Kindle Paperwhite and an iPhone, or have a live-chat with a librarian through an app on a Sony PRST2HBC, the coalition’s claims that e-reader ACS is “theoretical” seemed less compelling.  

Now that the FCC has rejected the coalition’s request for an indefinite waiver, these developers have to choose between spending the next twelve months getting ready to request another waiver or simply making their products accessible.  Considering the pressure the NFB and the government have been putting on schools and libraries to acquire accessible products, the FCC’s decision should help nudge them in the right direction.  Moreover, the FCC should apply this approach to other waiver requests, which means the e-reader victory sets a helpful precedent.  

Obviously Amazon, Sony and Kobo do not want to make their products accessible, but why?  They have spent years improving every single feature of e-readers, except for accessibility.  The 2010 Sony PRS 350 did not have a long battery, or Wi-Fi, or access to the public library, or access to social media, or text-to-speech.  Its 2012 counterpart, the PRST2HBC, now has all of those things…except text-to-speech. The 2010 Kindle DX did not have a touch screen, or 3G support, or Wikipedia, or games, or text-to-speech.  Its 2012 counterpart, the Kindle Paperwhite, now has all of those things…except text-to-speech.  Oddly, the 2011 iterations of these products did indeed have text-to-speech, but it was a short-lived part of their designs.  Maybe the coalition thought 2011 was a leap year?

The FCC noted that even if the waiver is denied, that does not ensure that blind users will actually be able to read digital books.  The CVAA does not require the reading functions of products to be accessible; only ACS.  We explained how older iterations of e-readers had accessibility features, and that it was easy to make both the ACS and the reading functions accessible.  The FCC asked, “Then why have they been resisting you all of this time?”  That is a good question, indeed.  

The CVAA offered the coalition a chance to do the right thing without losing any competition, considering that the accessibility requirements would apply to manufacturers of ACS products across the board.  By now the coalition should be tired of fighting these battles, but after reading their assertion that “the requested waiver will advance the public interest,” they obviously do not seem to get it.  

The NFB started the War for Access years ago.  We protested outside of the Authors Guild in 2009 for opposing the accessibility features in Amazon’s Kindle 2; we subsequently protested outside of Amazon three years later for marketing the inaccessible Whispercast program to schools. And our victory with the FCC’s waiver decision is hardly our first battle won.  In 2010, the Department of Justice reached settlements with three universities for using the inaccessible device in the classroom.  In 2012, the landmark ruling in the HathiTrust case permitted libraries to digitize their collections for distribution and use by the blind.  In 2013, the World Intellectual Property Organization adopted a treaty to significantly increase access to books for the blind across the globe.   

Dr. Maurer says that access to digital books and e-readers “is one of the most critical civil rights issues facing blind Americans in the twenty-first century, and we will do everything in our power to see that this right is secured.”  We will keep winning these battles until we win the war.  Thanks to the FCC for its help this go-round.