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Amazon, Kobo and Sony petition FCC to exempt e-readers from accessibility laws

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Amazon (s AMZN), Kobo and Sony (s SNE) are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to permanently exempt e-readers from certain federal accessibility laws for the disabled, arguing that e-readers are barebones devices designed for a single purpose: reading text.

The petition is interesting because it argues that e-readers’ value lies in the fact that they are inherently limited devices and that any non-reading functions they include, like experimental web browsers, are “rudimentary” and not very useful. Amazon, Kobo and Sony say that if they were forced to comply with FCC regulations and make e-readers fully accessible to people with disabilities, the essential nature of the devices would change, making them more like tablets, more expensive and, overall, less useful for their express purpose.

The FCC is accepting comments on the petition through September 3.

Amazon, Kobo and Sony, under the umbrella “Coalition of E-Reader Manufacturers” and represented by Covington & Burling, argue (petition embedded below) that e-readers should be exempt from two provisions in the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2010. The provisions require that “equipment used for advanced communications services [ACS], including end user equipment” be “accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” and the government can force manufacturers to comply.

Amazon, Sony and Kobo argue that “advanced communications services” don’t apply to e-readers because “e-readers are a distinct class of equipment built for the specific purpose of reading,” and as such include “purposeful hardware limitations” that differentiate them from tablets:

“E-readers cannot display videos at an acceptable quality, and most cannot generate audio output or record audio input. E-readers do not contain apps for ACS, including email, instant messaging, or other electronic messaging services; VoIP; or interoperable video conferencing services. Browsers on e-readers are stripped down and not fully featured either…Given all of these limitations, if users attempt to access ACS on an e-reader device, the user experience would not be robust and likely would not encourage future use for ACS.”

The petition argues that “many view the absence of robust communication tools on e-readers as a welcome break from distraction rather than as a limitation,” and that the mandate to make devices accessible to disabled people would “convert e-readers into something they are not: a general purpose device.” They add:

“Adding a substantial range of hardware and new software changes the fundamental nature of e-reader devices. A requirement to make these changes would alter the devices’ form factor, weight, and battery life and could undercut the distinctive features, advantages, price point, and viability of e-readers.”

And, they say, “individuals with disabilities have better ACS options on devices other than e-readers” — noting that “today, many Americans choose to own both a tablet and an e-reader.” They conclude, “the functional differences between tablets and e-readers have been clear and steady for a number of years. The Commission can use the definition of devices set forth above to ensure it covers only true e-readers and not tablets, thereby addressing the  concern that genuine multipurpose devices would be exempt.”

In a follow-up letter, a Covington attorney more specifically outlines the types of devices the waiver would apply to:

“(1) The device has no LCD screen. (2) The device has no camera. (3) The device is not offered or shipped to consumers with built-in email, IM, VoIP or other similar ACS client applications and the device manufacturer does not develop ACS applications for their respective device. (4) The device is marketed to consumers as a reading device and promotional material about the devices does not tout the capability to access ACS.”

Other products have already received waivers on a temporary basis: “Internet protocol-enabled television sets, Internet-enabled digital video players, cable set-top boxes, and gaming consoles, services and software” are exempt from the rules until October 2015, for instance. Amazon, Kobo and Sony, however, want e-readers to be exempt permanently.

Here are the petition, originally filed in May, and the follow-up letter, sent to the FCC on July 17.

E-reader FCC Petition

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20 Responses to “Amazon, Kobo and Sony petition FCC to exempt e-readers from accessibility laws”

  1. coryxjklatik

    Ok – This is amusing. Today Kobo announced new eReaders. They looked interesting so I searched for “Kobo e reader accessibility.” Because, y’know, I’m blind. Low-and-behold this blog was #1 in my results. This topic, this topic of debate is nuts.

    Specifically that it *is* a debate is nuts. Yes, yes, these are consumer electronic devices. But they are more than that. As they have become more affordable and the content they deliver has become more mainstream these devices and the “eReaders” medium has become ubiquitous and has penetrated most aspects of information consumption in the United States (and many other parts of the world). Meaning that the eReader and tablet device has become a default accepted form of information (not entertainment) consumption for a significant (if not majority of the) population.

    Would you debate regulations requiring closed captioning/teletext on the nightly news? Or state funded newspaper access services such as Newsline, which gives away newspapers in electronic format or reads them over the phone for free? Or for that matter the federally funded library of congress service that provided “books-on-tape” for 40 years, and now provides books in audio format as specially DRM’d audiobooks called Digital Talking Books? No – because as a commonly accepted ideal, we as conscious human beings have a right to the access of information. And yes, just as television producers of the 80’s had to add mandated support for closed captioning, eReader and tablet producers must ensure their devices are accessible.

  2. Befuddled as to why this is an issue

    Why does every single thing have to be accessible to every single person on the planet – no matter what their abilities or disability? If I wanted a tablet that could read to me or have giant text, I would get one. Instead, I opted to get a Kindle e-Reader – because I wanted the e-ink option rather than a back-lit screen (and if I started losing my vision, then I would reconsider the need/desire for a back-lit screen….wait – Kindle offers the Fire and they offer a lit screen of sorts on their newer e-readers).

    Heaven forbid anyone have to do what I do when I want to LISTEN to an audio book – I either purchase the MP3, the CD, go to Librivox for the older stuff, or go to the library. I don’t WANT my e-reader to do everything that a tablet does. I want the limitations in place for myself. Why do I have to give up those limitations when there are completely viable alternatives out there – ones that I would totally make use of if the need would arise. There are actually times that Separate & Different technologies are okay – especially if they do the same thing. In this case, both a tablet, laptop,desktop, & e-readers make BOOKS (seriously – printed books!) available in an electronic “printed” format via e-ink or pixels. Pick the one that suits your needs best rather than make all the products do the exact same thing. Yeesh.

    • coryxjklatik

      This being an issue isn’t about getting books in audio format. It’s about ensuring that when a high school or college uses an e-book that is only available via Amazon, or another mainstream distributor that the device that is primarily responsible for displaying the text is also capable of outputting the content in a way that a blind person can consume the same information.

      My opinion is a bit jaded as I am a blind person who consumes a copious number of books – somewhere around 3-4 per month – via electronic format, whether that’s, Librovox, But, nonetheless, when a book is available only in the Kindle or iTunes store, I’m SOL, I just don’t get to read the book unless I buy the physical print edition and contact the publisher directly to beg for an electronic copy that isn’t DRM’d. So this isn’t a bunch of whiners wanting to listen to their books on any device they buy. It’s about making sure that a technology that has become ubiquitous with information consumption and learning is usable by the largest group possible.

  3. Mark MacKay

    Separate and unequal technology? Sounds like a convenient argument for manufacturers unwilling to offer inclusive products. The end result should be technology that adapts to all users. The manufacturers arguments turn molehills into mountains.

  4. NickBangO

    As a matter of fact, Amazon had problems with text-to-speech: publishers threatened Amazon as they considered a book read through text-to-speech an audio version of the book that Kindle’s license did not cover. And that is why it disappeared from Kindle devices…

    So, if eReaders’ manufacturers must respect those laws, wouldn’t it be pure logic that publishers be prevented from threatening them?

    • Renee Auclair

      The bigger issue is that, just as in the bad old days of music sales, where songs were DRM’ed (copy protected), commercial ebooks today are copy-protedted. If commerical ebooks weren’t copy protected, third party developers could bring out software that could bring text-to-speech and other capabilities to ebooks.

      As it is, if I’m not mistaken, you can’t have Barnes & Noble, or Kobo ebooks read aloud to
      you on any platform (manufacturer ereader, PC software, tablet app). And Amazon doesn’t
      have text-to-speech on its PC software either. Only Kindle Fire HD tablets have text-to-
      speech, and only if text-to-speech is enabled on a per book title basis.

      As someone posted earlier here, early Amazon Kindle models had text-to-speech built in,
      but it was removed because publishers considered it as audio recording, and a violation
      of the license. Doubtless, publishers wanted extra payment for this “feature”.

      A solution can be worked out, however. I believe that US law allows the Library of Congress to make available in an accessible format, any book that is published in
      the US. Only bona fide disabled persons can have access to these accessible
      books, to respect the copyright holders’ rights. Unauthorized use is subject to
      prosecution and criminal penalties for copyright infringement.

      The conversion to an accessible format is already being done, albeit on a
      limited scale by various organizations. Only a fraction of the books available
      on, for example, are available in an accessible format.

      A fee can be added on to each book sold, similar to the telecom user fees, to fund the Library of Congress and other organizations’ conversion efforts.

  5. They’re going about it incorrectly. Tech that works for everyone exists already. The ability to change fonts and text sizes is a no-brainer. A little R&D to create more lifelike text-to-speech feature that’s baked in would appeal to anyone looking to continue a book during a commute. I could go on, but it’s time to remove the word “accessibility” and think usability for all… *sigh*

    • coryxjklatik

      “Usability” that’s the keyword here. I like the direction. But sadly the publishers put a kibosh on that when the Kindle 2 was released back in 2009 with said reasonable quality text to speech engine.. The publishers claimed that providing such a feature broke the publishers’ licensing agreement with Amazon as it provided an audio edition of said book which Amazon did not license. The various rights organizations for the blind such as the ACB NFB, and RNIB for those on the other side of the pond stepped up and called BS on this. But as we’ve seen recently with the price fixing “scandal” publishers still hold the keys to the content castle for eBooks.

  6. Phillip Parris

    I am a severely physically disabled person and 100% believe in disabled advocacy, but if I were at the store and saw an apple (the fruit) and wanted it really bad but knew damn well I couldn’t eat an apple, I’d buy a fruit that better suited my needs- like a banana. Why are they wanting to buy a product that is in no way applicable for them? If you are not using the product appropriately, then go buy something better suited for your needs. Next thing you know I’ll be suing Nike for not making a shoe I can walk in.

  7. I have one of the first marketed Kindles. Its simplicity has kept it functional. No updates, no nothing. Just buy a Kindle edition book and read it. I wish I had a back light on it, but can’t afford the newer Kindles. Anyway, I will keep this one until it stops working and then if they become more more expensive because of the ACS requirements … I will by books.

  8. Mark van der Wal

    The sole purpose of buying an E-reader is for the E-ink screen. If you’re not using the screen there is no point in buying one, you would be better off with a device more suitable to your needs. Even if you’d use the screen and you have poor vision you should probably use a backlit screen because it’s easier to read with poor vision. Instead, the government wants to make devices far more expensive than necessary even though almost no disabled person will purchase an E-reader.

    • Anonymous Coward

      You’re forgetting cost. If all you want is an e-reader, you can go as cheap as $100, as opposed to $200 for a bare-bones tablet. And pretty much any recently produced e-reader is, currently, perfectly capable of running a screen reader. Oh, and battery life. Again, if all you’re using it for is reading, the battery life is going to be much better on the e-reader.

    • Renee Auclair

      Your reasoning ignores the aging population which has both the money to buy ereaders, buy ebooks, and the time to read them. These older readers will benefit greatly from accessibility. Lest you forget, you’ll be old yourself someday. Prudent manufacturers adapt their products to their customers. The US population is aging, as are most of the populations of the developed world, which is the primary market for ereaders.

      Not needing accessibility can mean that ereaders won’t have text larger than 14 points, which normal vision is able to handle.

    • coryxjklatik

      You’re right – A visually impaired person would never choose to buy a device with an e-ink display. Preferably, one would prefer a device that can open Kindle & Kobo DRM’d content that does not have a display at all. The battery life would be amazing, because the primary power consumption would be to power a system on a chip for a decent text to speech engine. Sadly, a device like this doesn’t exist. So, since Amazon has the largest library of electronic books and periodicals I would naturally need to find something that can open said content that is completely accessible. Oops. That doesn’t exist. [there are some half solutions that do exist] Oh well guess I won’t read that book for class this semester.

  9. Jeff Black

    As more and more text books and other material is now available this would block and entire segment of the population from this information. This is exactly why 508 exists!!! I have a physical disability but over the last 8 years have worked with low vision and blind employees and now understand how all these exceptions to the rules hurt people. How much could is cost to add speech? Probably less then these corporations are spending fighting it. Suck it up as the cost of doing business and just do the right thing.

    • It’s called an eReader not an eListener. There are other devices already on the market that address audiobooks. I’ve seen iPod Shuffles for as low as $40 at Walmart that work great for audiobooks.

  10. Cghodnett

    As both a disabled person and an advocate for the disabled……it is a no brainier. They should be exempt. This is just an example of passing regulations that are not clearly defined and the beureacracy is not able to differentiate between classes of devices…..forcing companies to adhere to regs that are not applicable.

    • Zathras

      How is it not applicable? Blind people don’t like to read? I really have to wonder about your statement about being disabled. Really? And you don’t see the need for accessibility? Please explain, because it sure sounds like you’re saying the opposite of what ever other advocate of disabled people I’ve ever talked to. (I was a social worker in a previous life.)

      I suspect they don’t want to have accessibility for one simple reason. They don’t want to compete on a level playing field with Apple, which has always been in the forefront of accessibility for years.

      Or could it be the publishers consider accessibility another “performance” (like they did for when the Kindle could read to you, which brings into question how they took that out and seemed to have forgotten that capability was there all along?) and want to charge extra royalties. If so, then shame on the publishers.

      But I suspect it’s the cheapskate tablet builders.