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.