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E-book access debate continues in US following legal waiver

The debate over whether all e-book readers should be made accessible – including the addition of sound capabilities – is set to continue in the US, after the country’s Federal Communications Commission granted reader manufacturers a temporary waiver to one accessibility regulation.

The FCC has granted a one-year waiver exempting single-purpose e-book readers from a requirement in the US 21st Century Video and Communications and Video Accessibility Act that equipment used for advanced communication services (ACS) be accessible to people with disabilities.

The move came in response to a petition filed last year by a coalition of e-reader manufacturers –Amazon, Kobo and Sony – who said that because e-readers are used almost exclusively for reading, they do not provide ACS (see http://bit.ly/16gW53i ). The firms also argued that to make such readers fully accessible would increase their cost and weight and decrease battery life, essentially turning them into different devices more similar to tablet computers.

In granting the waiver, the FCC said: “Although capable of accessing ACS (such as email), we conclude that this narrow class of e-readers is designed primarily for reading text-based digital works, not for ACS.”

However, the commission limited the waiver to one year, despite the coalition’s request for an indefinite waiver, saying: “given the swift pace at which technologies are evolving and the expanding role of ACS in electronic devices, the waiver will expire on January 28, 2015.”

It also limited the waiver to “a distinct, narrow class of e-readers” with limited features, namely those with no LCD screen; no camera; and no built-in email, instant messaging or similar ACS applications. Most e-book manufacturers already also make more sophisticated, tablet PC-style readers which do comply with accessibility rules, and the new waiver in effect separates these categories of products from each other for legal purposes – for one year, at least.

Nate Hoffelder, editor of the e-books blog “Digital reader“, told E-Access Bulletin he expected the waiver to be extended again next year, since its removal would be likely to result in the simpler class of e-book readers being withdrawn from the market.

“By the time the new regulation was written in 2011, Amazon, Kobo… and other device makers all had one or more e-readers on the market which did not have sound, and thus could not comply with the regulation”, Hoffelder said. “That put the device makers in the position of filing for a waiver or simply pulling the e-readers from the market.”

However the American Library Association, which has campaigned against any waiver, said in a statement it was “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.”

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