Google Struggles with Accessibility as Services Expand

2/17/2006

Christopher Danielsen

On the surface, the popular Web search engine Google seems to be completely accessible to those of us who are blind. The site has a simple design, and all of its links and graphics are properly labeled. If all you want to do is a simple Web search, you’ll get along with Google just fine.

Once you try to access Google’s more advanced services and functions, however, you’ll run into the bugaboo that has been stalking blind Internet users in one form or another for some time now. The beast is known as a “captcha,” which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to tell computers and humans apart. Alan Turing was a British scientist who, among other things, described a method by which a computer could tell whether it was being accessed by a human being or another computer. Technically, a captcha can be any task that must be performed by a human being. The type of captcha that is most frequently used is what we have come to call visual, graphical, or word verification.

Many sites and services on the Internet have implemented these visual captchas. Their reasons for doing so are legitimate; hackers will try to access and use services like on-line ticket outlets with automated software, sometimes blocking access to other users in order to buy up huge blocks of tickets or jam the resource involved so that others can’t use it. Some will use free email accounts, like those provided by Yahoo and MSN Hotmail, to send spam. Worst of all, hackers can use such automated tools to harvest the online ID’s and passwords, and possibly more sensitive information like credit card and Social Security numbers, of legitimate users. The typical captcha consists of a distorted image of words or random letters and numbers in a box which automated technologies, including screen readers, can’t read. For sighted users, gaining access is simply a matter of correctly identifying the characters and typing them into a box; the server in question then presumably knows that a genuine human being is trying to gain access. Naturally, such graphics have the effect of denying entry to blind users, unless we get sighted assistance to identify the characters to type in order to enter the site or service.

The blind community has been complaining about these visual Turing tests for some time. Some sites, such as the Who Is database of domain name owners operated by Network Solutions, have responded by removing the requirement. Others provide an alternative method for the blind to gain access. MSN and PayPal, for example, allow the user to click a link reading “I can’t see this picture,” which causes an audio file of the characters to be played. The audio file is usually slightly garbled, just as the visual image is slightly distorted, in order to prevent automated voice recognition software from correctly identifying and entering the characters. (Since a captcha can be any test designed to tell computers and humans apart, this solution is usually known as an audio captcha.) The distortion of the sound of the characters being read also sometimes means that a blind user needs more than one go at gaining entry, and it’s helpful to have a Braille writing implement or recording device handy, but at the end of the day, with a little patience, the blind can gain access.

Other sites, like Yahoo, put the user in touch with customer service representatives for assistance. To set up a Yahoo account, blind users have to fill out a form and wait for a Yahoo customer service representative to call them back, usually the next day but sometimes later. Still, delayed access is arguably better than no access at all.

Google has implemented no such solution for blind users to access its accounts for obtaining news alerts by email and setting up blogs. When VNB established a news alerts account several months ago, we emailed Google and did finally get a response informing us that our account had been set up for us. But this took three weeks.

Google also operates the popular Blogger service, which allows anyone with a computer to set up a blog. This service, too, requires visual verification. When we tried it, we could not gain access, and there was not so much as a telephone number to call or an email address to which to send a message requesting help with this problem. We had to resort to locating Google’s general contact information on the site. The telephone was no help. Google has no live technical support representatives, or many other humans working there, if our difficulties in getting through the serpentine telephone menu system to leave a voice-mail message or the initial failure of anyone to return our calls are any indication. We finally described the problem on the general contact form. To its credit, the Blogger team responded more quickly than the folks in charge of Google Alerts had. Once an automated message directed us to the proper email address for the Blogger team, the problem was resolved within three days, with some emails back and forth between us and Google to establish the user name and password for the Blogger account. The Blogger representative who contacted us was generally polite and promised that our concerns would be taken into consideration as the Blogger interface continues to be improved. Google continues to roll out new services, including its new and popular Gmail client (which provides an email account with virtually unlimited storage capacity), and seems slow on the uptake as to the full scope of this problem. Although Gmail is technically still a pilot project, with accounts given by invitation only, blind people who have been given accounts have been unable to set them up independently.

Google claimed in an article published on July 8, 2005, that its team was now aware of the problem posed to blind users by visual captchas, and would have alternatives available in one or two months. But when we performed a test in January 2006 pretending we had forgotten the password to our Google account, we were asked to pass a Turing test in order to be reminded of the password, and there was no hint of an accessible alternative to the visual test or any direct way to contact someone who could help. When we interviewed Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President for Search Products and User Experience, on February 1 of this year, she said that Google has implemented a solution whereby a disability access link can be clicked and the captcha will appear in a new window, thereby allowing the blind user to take a screen shot of it and send it to a friend or perhaps to access it with more advanced screen readers or OCR products. Mayer said that the company still plans to implement audio captchas but did not indicate when this might occur. At the time this article was posted, we were still waiting to hear from Google on its exact strategy for implementation of accessible captchas. We will publish this information as soon as it is made available to us.

On another front in the accessibility wars, Google has launched its Library project, though its offerings are limited since Google has only included books in the public domain in order to prevent, (or more likely postpone), a dustup with publishers. While it’s possible for a blind user to search Google Books and see the results containing the titles and authors of relevant publications, it is not possible to access the images of the pages that sighted users can see. This seems strange, since the same OCR software that made the scanned books searchable surely could also be used to generate textfiles of the relevant pages. Mayer maintained when interviewed by VNB that Google would only make text available for books that are in the public domain or where specific permission to do so has been obtained from the publisher. To be fair to Google on this point, the company has had a hard time convincing publishers to allow their books to be scanned and searched by Google users, let alone made accessible to the blind. Nonetheless, what Google does choose to allow the sighted community to see, it should also make accessible to the blind.

Google initially blamed its slow response to the problem of visual captchas on a lack of feedback from blind users, even though, ironically, information about the problems visual captchas pose for the blind is only a Google search away. But if Google demands feedback from the blind community, the company is now most certainly getting it. Concerned blind computer users can sign an on-line petition begun by Darrell Shandrow, who blogs at Blind Access Journal, demanding that Google modify its behavior with respect to Turing tests. Although we do not doubt Google’s sincere intentions to implement accessible solutions, it cannot hurt to spur the company on. The petition is located at Petition Online

Despite the good faith efforts of companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, PayPal and Network Solutions to provide alternatives to visual captchas, these access barriers are proliferating across the Internet with little regard for blind Web surfers. For this reason, the NFB passed a resolution at our 2005 national convention stating clearly that visual captchas are not acceptable to the blind. It is time for Internet service providers to come to the table and discuss this matter with the blind community and work towards solutions that provide the necessary security for site owners while still allowing the blind to gain access to the information and services the Internet offers.

Update: According to Google spokesman Nathan Tyler, Google hopes to implement audio captchas by the end of April 2006