There is currently a movement
afoot to apply the Americans with Disabilities Act to the World Wide Web.
Lawyers recently sued America Online, for example, arguing that its heavy
reliance on a graphical user interface made it difficult for blind users
to access the service. According to Walter Olson, who runs Overlawyered.Com
and has published extensively on legal issues, the Justice Department
has already indicated that much of the activity on the Internet likely
falls under the ADA.
What the lawyers and activists
want might not sound that difficult or imposing to those not involved
in creating web content, but it could pose serious problems. According
to the W3 Consortium, content is considered inaccessible if it includes
“images without alternative text; lack of alternative text for imagemap
hot-spots; misleading use of structural elements on pages; uncaptioned
audio or undescribed video; lack of alternative information for users
who cannot access frames or scripts; tables that are difficult to decipher
when linearized; or sites with poor color contrast.”
Olson was kind enough to post
to a House subcommittee on the dangers this sort of standard poses
to the explosion of web sites that has occurred in the past few years
which outlines many of the problems. In fact if applied strictly, the
ADA would make sites like this one impossible.
I currently run 8 or 9 web
sites and pretty much do all the writing, editing, HTML-work, graphics,
etc. The amazing thing about the web is that extremely small groups of
people can quickly and efficiently publish information and commentary
and compete with larger publishers in ways that were impossible before
the Web. The main reason is the low cost. This year I will reach between
5 and 6 million readers while spending less than $2,000.
The problem with the ADA requirement
is that it suddenly increases the costs. I’ve got plans for a couple site
to add audio and video, and any requirement to produce transcripts would
simply destroy that possibility. Who has time to transcribe an hour long
production every week (or the money to hire someone to transcribe them)?
Large corporations and outfits with a lot more resources than I.
Olson points out that in order
to fulfill some of the accessibility requirements, people would have to
“unlearn” common HTML coding techniques, and they would probably be forced
to buy expensive new tools to do the coding as well. I know my sites are
filled with “tables that are difficult to decipher when linearized” as
a conscious part of the design.
Some of the requirements are
impossible to meet if you want a decent web site. For example, nobody
stops to ask why folks leave out alternative text for imagemap hot-spots
and graphics. The reason is not because web designers don’t want blind
readers to have access to that information, but that several versions
ago both Netscape and Microsoft made a boneheaded mistake and forced their
browsers to automatically display the alternative text as a “tool tip”.
Unfortunately, what this means is that if you have an image map with several
options, putting the cursor over the image brings up the alternative text
and often obscures or makes it difficult to see the other options. Using
alternative text on many images and image maps can make them practically
Olson made an excellent point
on the sort of problems the ADA will cause if applied to the web when
he testified, “Amateur publishing, as by the owner of a small business
or a community group that relied on volunteers, would become more of a
legal hazard. The tendency would be for more entities to turn their web
publishing function over to paid professionals.”
I run a very successful site
on the animal rights movement
where about 250 people post regularly in a discussion forum I’ve set up.
One of the things I’ve been contemplating over the past few weeks is setting
up a program so those folks can create their own web pages on my server
relating to animal rights (kind of like a small, more focused Geocities
or Tripod). Who would the liability fall under for out of compliance web
pages on such an endeavor? Maybe me, maybe the individuals, but who wants
to risk a lawsuit just to find out?
Many years ago I worked at
a college newspaper. Some folks who thought our paper was a little too
close to the university administration decided to start their own student
group and publish an alternative newspaper. Unfortunately the student’s
began printing rather outrageous claims about individual professors and
administrators and the university brought in the lawyers. The lawyers
were afraid somebody would sue the group for libel and then try to recover
large damages from the university. Whether or not such a scenario was
likely, the university did not want to risk such litigation and demanded
the students either a) by libel insurance, which is not cheap, especially
for students or b) cease publishing as a student group. The students took
the latter route.
This is exactly the sort of
scenario which will be repeated by small web publishers in the United
States. The fear of possible lawsuits will drastically alter the behavior
of web publishers. The promise of the web was that rather than the classic
top down publishing model of a small group of people publishing to the
masses, anybody could create a web site. If the ADA and other regulations
begin to be strictly applied to the web, only people who can afford to
retain a lawyer will be able to create a web site. That would knock me
and a lot of other smaller publishers out of the game entirely.