More MS news articles for May 1999

Debate rages over U.S. Net nanny law

Government-corporate expert says it's nothing to worry about


By Jon E. Dougherty
© 1999

An Internet development expert and technology committee member denied yesterday that the private websites would soon be subject to federal government regulations concerning the disabled, while others, reacting to a report in WorldNetDaily, say government regulations on accessibility are exactly what is being planned.

David Bolnick, a company spokesman for Microsoft Corp. and a member of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee, said alleged recommendations made by his committee indicating the federal government was planning to force private website operators to adopt content and technology making them more accessible to audio- and visually-impaired Internet users were "not completely true." The law, he said, "only applies to websites and website owners who are directly involved in commerce with the federal government."
Bolnick adamantly denied that his group was planning to apply those changes to privately owned sites. And, he added, those regulations could not be implemented even if that was the intent of his committee. "That would have to be an act of Congress," he said.

He added that as a member of the technology committee, which was convened at the request of a congressional panel, representatives from government and the technology industry were meeting "strictly to make recommendations to industry information providers." Microsoft Corp., Bolnick pointed out, was not the only computer and Internet provider representing industry.

He told WorldNetDaily that the law in question was "an old law, dating back to around 1986," and that "all that happened was that this law was reauthorized." During that process, "Somebody said, 'You know what? When you reauthorize a law that's been around for a while, you should [also] reevaluate it and see where things are,' and that's what we're doing." "If people are reading more into this law, that's not really fair because that's not what's happening," he said. "The committee has a very broad representation -- which includes computer and Internet industry -- and let me just say, they're not interested in becoming regulated." Bolnick admitted the law does apply to government-run electronic media, and "could be used to make government-run web sites comply with certain accessibility requirements." But, he added, federal agencies already have to comply with such accessibility regulations "and websites run by government agencies are no exception."

"For instance, say the Department of Transportation was visited by someone who is blind. The law states that DOT would have to make any requested information available in some format that could be used by the taxpayer requesting it. It does not mean, however, that this same person must be able to use all information media equally," he explained. In other words, federal agencies are required under law to make sure a citizen has the ability to obtain any and all requested information in a usable format. It does not say, however, that every technology must be equally accessible, nor that every electronic medium be specially designed to accommodate handicapped persons.

"If that citizen cannot use a computer very well," Bolnick said, "then they have to be given something usable -- Braille, computer disk, audio tape, large-print documents -- something, so they can have what they want."

Bolnick did say that any website created by Microsoft for the federal government, for example, had to be accessible to handicapped persons. "But that applies only to that particular site," he said. "It doesn't mean that all Microsoft sites have to comply with the same accessibility requirements."

But others disagree with Bolnick's perception. Jenifer Simpson, a committee member and manager of technology initiatives at the
President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, told Ziff Davis in an interview April 18
that making all sites handicapped accessible was "really a civil rights issue."

"The Internet is subject to market forces, but it didn't start through market forces, it was started by the federal government," she said. "The government has a real interest in seeing that the disabled are not discriminated against."

Judy Brewer, the director of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Access Initiative and a member of the same committee with Bolnick, told reporters she "believes the new standards will be a catalyst for commercial sites to improve access for the disabled." "I'm certainly hoping that they increase awareness about the issue," Brewer said. Both Brewer and Simpson said that, as with the issue of consumer data privacy, they believe Congress may eventually step in if the industry does not regulate itself regarding disability access. Currently, some 54 million Americans are listed as having some sort of disability. Brewer said the number of sites currently handicapped accessible "is a very small minority," adding that the trend today is to make sites even more glitzy and graphic-heavy.

Michael Cooper, a technologist at the Center for Applied Technology, has said that upgrading sites to comply with the regulations isn't costly, nor would it prohibit graphics. "You can have full access and still have all the elements you want to have on your site," he said.
Brewers' WAI has already published a set of guidelines, which reportedly are being
considered by government regulators. WAI suggests that website operators supply text descriptions for all graphics, bar the use of color to convey information, and to discourage the "use (or misuse) ... of tables and other formatting that makes it difficult for users with specialized software to understand the organization of the page or to navigate through it."

Bolnick says no chance.

"That just isn't being planned -- at least by our committee -- and that law doesn't apply unless you're doing business with the government." A separate website has posted a program that analyzes web content and rates a site according to predetermined accessibility requirements. The program, called Bobby evaluates sites in minutes, then makes recommendations to a site operator on how to improve handicapped accessibility.