WASHINGTON--At the moment, most TVs and telephones must be outfitted with special features for people with hearing, vision, and speech impairments under U.S. law. Now an influential Democratic congressman wants to expand those requirements to their Internet counterparts.
The bill (PDF) being drafted by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would require, at least in some cases, dramatic changes in the way Internet phone- and video-related products are designed, while making it more difficult than under existing law for companies to claim exemptions from those requirements.
"The wizardry of the wires and the sophistication of the software programs do little for those who cannot affordably access or effectively use them," Markey said at a hearing here Thursday convened by the House of Representatives telecommunications and Internet panel he leads. "Our job as policymakers is to help ensure such affordable access and utilization, and this is what the draft legislation I have circulated is intended to do."
In some ways, the effort would simply build upon steps already taken by policymakers in recent years. Last summer, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission decided that voice-over Internet protocol providers whose services connect to the public-switched telephone network, such as Vonage, would be required to make their services compatible with hearing aids and telecommunications relay services, just as traditional phone operators do.
The Markey bill would extend those obligations to Skype-like equipment that allows users to swap voice, text, or video communications via Internet protocol technology. It would also go a step further, requiring them to support standard communication, an interactive data transmission method that replicates the feel of voice conversations more closely than instant messaging.
The bill also contains new rules for manufacturers of any gadget designed to receive or display video programming, be it Internet-based or otherwise. They would generally be required to equip those devices with the ability to decode and display closed captions, to deliver "video description" services (that is, oral narration designed for the blind and visually-impaired), and to present typical ticker-style emergency messages in a way that's accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
Furthermore, the devices would have to be designed so that on-screen menus are accessible in real-time to individuals with disabilities, and all remote controls would have to contain a "conspicuous" buttons for activating closed captioning.
Disabilities community weighs in
A variety of disabilities advocates voiced support for the bill at Thursday's hearing. (Its working title is the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, although it has not yet been formally introduced.)
At the moment, federal rules require all TVs with screens larger than 13 inches to contain chips to display closed captions. But that's no longer sufficiently stringent as the popularity of videos delivered via cell phones, laptops, and MP3 players surges, said Russell Harvard, a deaf actor who played Daniel Day Lewis' adult-age son in the Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood.
"I and others who cannot hear are left out of this whirlwind of technological change (because) hardly any of these smaller devices display closed captions," Harvard said, urging Congress to take closed captioning law "to its next level."
Jamaal Anderson, an Atlanta Falcons defensive end, recalled that at draft time last year, his mother was forced to "interpret" video clips of him that appeared on Web sites of National Football League teams and news organizations for the benefit of his father, Glenn, who holds the distinction of being the first PhD recipient to be deaf and black.
U.S. Army Sgt. Major Jesse Acosta, a longtime soldier who lost his right eye and vision in his left eye during a mortar explosion in Iraq two years ago, said it's not acceptable that of his three favorite television shows--CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, and CSI: Las Vegas--only one of them has descriptive audio. The Southern California resident, who spoke on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, said he was also dismayed that crawling alerts on his TV screen about potential emergencies, like earthquakes or mudslides, went by unbeknownst to him unless a family member of friend happened to be there to relay the message.
In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission set rules that required video operators to provide that video description service, but a court overturned those rules, arguing that they were contrary to Congress's intent. Part of Markey's bill attempts to restore those rules, which Acosta, who spoke on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, applauded.
New regulations: Necessary or not?
Democrats on the committee generally seemed to support Markey's plans, voicing concern about excluding people with disabilities from new technologies. Some Republicans, however, said that although they shared Markey's goals, they were skeptical about the need for new legislation.
"New regulations may not be needed because the technology and wireless industries are already taking the necessary steps to make sure their products and applications are indeed accessible to all people," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the panel's ranking member.
Some Internet video providers, including NBC and Fox's joint Hulu.com venture and Apple's iTunes store, already offer captioned programming. Last fall, AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo formed a coalition called the Internet Captioning Forum, coordinated by public broadcasting station WGBH in Boston, that's designed to standardize captioning practices for Web hosts and content providers.
"I think they have figured it out," Larry Goldberg, WGBH's director of media access, said of that effort at Thursday's hearing. "What they need to figure out is how to make it pervasive," and Markey's legislation should help "light that fire" under those companies.
Wireless companies, for their part, already make phones that use voice recognition, software that will "read out" or magnify screen information, and other features designed to help sensory-impaired users, said Dane Snowden, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association. All cell phones are compatible with TTY, also known as Text Telephone Device, which allows deaf or hard-of-hearing people to communicate through text, and about 40 phone models are compatible with hearing aids, he added.
"If we can sell products that are more accessible, we sell more products," Snowden told the committee. "We have a vested interest in this and a proven track record."
His group, which represents major wireless carriers and manufacturers, supports the concept of Markey's legislation but believes the current draft would "unnecessarily burden the industry with little countervailing benefit to the disability community," Snowden said.
Another potential problem with the bill is that it allows unhappy customers to file private lawsuits alleging violations of the disability requirements, said Ken Nakata, a former U.S. Department of Justice civil rights attorney who now works for the consulting firm BayFirst Solutions in Seattle.
Such a policy could actually undermine the rights of people with disabilities, he argued. It was, after all, private litigation that led to what he called a "disaster for the disability rights movement"--a court opinion in a case involving Southwest Airlines' Web site that essentially found the Americans with Disabilities Act applies only to physical spaces, not businesses on the Web.
Markey indicated he would consider the suggestions as the bill is finalized and said he hoped legislation could be passed by year's end. A committee aide told CNET News.com that he expects the bill to be introduced formally before Congress' Memorial Day recess.