FCC makes “close call” in issuing e-reader waiver

To the disappointment of the American Library Association and a range of advocates for people with disabilities, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted a one-year waiver to the E-reader Coalition–Amazon, Sony and Kobo–to the Commission’s rules for Access to Advanced Communications and Services (ACS) for People with Disabilities. The Coalition argued that their e-readers were made for the sole purpose of reading text and therefore should not have to comply with accessibility implementation requirements of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. The FCC Order notes that it made a “close call” in granting the waiver because even the Coalition concedes that its basic devices include browsers and are capable of ACS (e.g., email, instant messaging, voice over Internet protocol service).

Advocates, including the ALA, did prevail in our call to the FCC not to grant the permanent waiver that the Coalition requested. It should also be noted that the FCC decision is focused on ACS and does not address e-reader accessibility concerns regarding speech-to-text or other measures that would provide access to text-based digital works.

In filings, the FCC wrote:

We grant a waiver from the Commission’s ACS rules for the class of “basic e-readers,” as defined herein, until January 28, 2015. We limit the term of the waiver to one year from the expiration of the temporary waiver, 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 waiver applies to a class of e-reader devices that:

  • has no LCD screen;
  • has no camera;
  • is not offered or shipped to consumers with built-in ACS client applications, and the device manufacturer does not develop ACS applications for its respective device, but the device may be offered or shipped to consumers with a browser and social media applications; and
  • is marketed to consumers as a reading device and promotional material about the device does not tout the capability to access ACS.

In September 2013, ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) opposed the petition in submitted comments to the FCC, arguing that the waiver was discriminatory and prevented libraries from ensuring equitable access to all. In addition, libraries have been sued for violating regulations of the American with Disabilities Act because they offer basic readers (like the Kindle) that are not accessible. In a meeting with FCC officials, OITP also pointed out that due to the rapid advancement of digital technologies, a permanent waiver to the accessibility rules was not prudent, and likely not necessary. In November, OITP with the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) submitted additional comments with data that demonstrated owners of basic e-readers were, in fact, using the products for ACS.

While disappointed the “close call” was not ruled in favor of people with disabilities, OITP is pleased that e-reader manufacturers must file for a waiver next year and re-argue their case, or make their e-reader ACS features accessible  to people with print and other disabilities. Our work with advocates to increase accessibility of digital text for people with print and other disabilities will continue beyond the FCC.

About Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the Director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP). Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books and other public policy issues. She has a MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a MA in media arts from the University of Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at crussell@alawash.org.

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