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Opinion – Regulating Accessibility: Time for a New Beginning

There is an elegant correspondence between the amount of information in circulation and its accessibility which can be expressed in two formulae.

First, that the greater the quantity of information, the lower its cost of production; and second, that the lower the cost of production, the greater is the additional percentage cost of making it accessible.

Take television. When spectrum was limited, the medium was analogue and the labour was unionised, the cost of producing television was high; so was the cost of producing accessibility services such as captioning, audio description and signing; but the percentage cost of these special services was relatively low.

Now think about the explosion of television since 1990 when satellite was introduced and project this forward to internet television: there will be no spectrum and therefore no scarcity, and digital production is cheap. Smaller and smaller players will find a toe-hold with niche products, but the smaller the player, the higher the relative percentage cost of accessibility services will become.

This scenario can be extended to multi media channels and on-demand services. So the question is, do we expect multi media providers to provide a full range of accessibility services, regardless of their economic capacity?

If we want to look for a rational answer to this question, the starting point is the way that television accessibility has been regulated. The 2003 Telecommunications Act obliged Ofcom to regulate accessibility services. It set rational percentages of compliance, taking into account the percentage of turnover they would need to spend in order to comply. If the percentage was too high, the broadcaster was exempt.
That is a good starting principle, but it does not go far enough. A second factor which we need to take into account is the purpose for which the multi media enterprise has been established. We might allow, for example, that a BBC television channel should be required to provide 100% accessibility, whereas a student blog should not. Between these two there are all kinds of information providers who need to be subjected to a rational principle in addition to their economic capacity. I suggest that the principle should be that the degree of accessibility required should depend on the public purpose of the information provider. We might argue that a major retailer should be under a higher obligation than a wholesale supplier of nuts and bolts.

There is a principle which directly relates both to economic capacity and public purpose, and that is reach. If we are going to insist on a level of accessibility, it should relate to the number of people likely to benefit. This does not simply involve producing a ball-park figure for blind and visually impaired people or deaf and hearing impaired people; the evidence has to be based on actual behaviour rather than on some wild estimate of uptake.

If we combine the organisation’s mission, economic capacity and reach, we are getting closer to a rational way of understanding the relationship between the supplier and the customer requiring an accessibility service.

Ultimately, we need a new approach to accessibility which is proportionate, evidence-based and economically viable. That, however, is not the end of the matter. One of the key features of the digital information age is that production and publishing are becoming global. If regulation is too harsh in one political sphere then companies will move.

This, in turn, means that regulation of content will have to shift from the country of origin to the country of consumption, which would mean enormous cost shifts from publishers to internet service providers (ISPs) and information brokers. If ISPs are to become pornography, security, virus and accessibility police, they are going to need paying through a combination of consumer and public sector revenue.

This is an important discussion because the globalisation of production and publishing will sound the death knell for accessibility unless we can forge alliances with those concerned with security, privacy, child protection and public service content in order to achieve a public stake in the way we filter and receive content.

In summary, then, the old game is over. We will no longer be able to rely on national or even European regulators, to deliver accessibility from the publisher. We are going to have to switch to information brokers, distributors and deliverers, working out some mechanism for imposing obligations similar to those which no doubt governments will ultimately impose for the purposes of national security and child protection. We have wasted almost twenty years waiting for each other to act and now we are entering very tough times. We need a new approach, we need to make a new start. This will not be easy, but it will have to be done.

NOTE: Kevin Carey is Director of humanITy. This article is an edited version of a talk given by Kevin at the recent Headstar conference e-Access ’08, hosted by E-Access Bulletin.


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