A piece of news has surfaced that makes for some pretty alarming headlines: Amazon.com Inc., Kobo Inc., and Sony Electronics Inc. have formed a self-described “Coalition of E-Reader Manufacturers” to petition the U. S. Federal Communications Commission, “for Waiver of Sections 716 and 717 of the Communications Act and Part 14 of the Commission’s Rules Requiring Access to Advanced Communications Services (ACS) and Equipment by People with Disabilities.”
Yes, they are asking the FCC to waive their legal obligations to provide ACS access for disabled users of e-readers.
But wait: Is this really a straight attempt to get out of obligations to the disabled? The Coalition’s case doesn’t revolve around existing accessibility options on e-reading devices. Rather, it is specifically about the requirements imposed on devices that are categorized as providing Advanced Communications Services: fast wireless network access, video, audio, etc.
“E-readers simply are not designed, built, or marketed for ACS, and the public understands the distinction between e-readers and general-purpose tablets,” declares the Coalition petition. “Granting the petition is in the public interest because rendering ACS accessible on e-readers would require fundamentally altering the devices to be more like general-purpose tablets in cost, form factor, weight, user interface, and reduced battery life, and yet the necessary changes, if they were made, would not yield a meaningful benefit to individuals with disabilities.”
For background, here is some detail on ACS, from the FCC:
“On October 8, 2010, the President signed into law the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010,” the FCC explains. “The law’s provisions are designed to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to emerging Internet Protocol-based communication and video programming technologies in the 21st Century.”
As the FCC page shows, the Coalition is not the first organization to petition for a waiver on the Act, and other waivers already appear to have been granted. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the Entertainment Software Association all have been granted waivers until October 2015, with affected devices and programs including “Internet protocol-enabled television sets, Internet-enabled digital video players, cable set-top boxes, and gaming consoles, services and software.” To that extent, the Coalition is only playing catch-up.
The petition insists that “e-readers are a distinct class of equipment,” and explains at length that they are used only for reading, with many examples from actual devices, marketing materials, and product literature, and are not marketed to offer ACS services. And in principle, I’d agree that e-readers, in the sense of cheap E Ink devices with readily resizeable text readable under natural light, actually offer considerable benefits to visually challenged users. And yes, those benefits might be eroded if manufacturers were forced to raise prices to comply with accessibility obligations that were intended to apply to a whole different class of devices. (You don’t mandate air bags for bicycles.)
Yet you can see the counter-arguments. Amazon and Kobo at least offer their e-readers in ranges that scale without differentiation from E Ink devices to full AV and Internet-capable color tablets—the Kindle Fire and the Kobo Arc. There’s no cutoff in their branding. And price points for smaller Android tablets are chasing down to e-reader levels already. Would it really hurt the makers so much from a pricing POV to impose those extra requirements? Furthermore, manufacturers have sold screen refresh rates and bundled browsers, not to mention color screens in some cases, as big plus points for customers. And any user of a Kobo Arc or Kindle Fire ought to have every legal entitlement to the same ACS accessibility features as on the fully-featured tablets they resemble in all but name.
All in all, I will be very interested to see what the FCC makes of this one. And I think the Coalition could have done itself a favor by being a little more pro-active and public about stating its case before introducing its petition.