Partisan Bickering Erupts at Online Accessibility Hearing

Sparks flew at a hearing June 9 on HR 3101, The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a bill that would update communications accessibility provisions in the 1996 Communications Act and apply them to access to broadband.

Seeming to bely House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher's (D-Va.) introductory remarks about the bipartisan work being done on the bill, some questioning from the bill's sponsor, Ed Markey (D-Mass.), drew criticism from ranking Republican Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and prompted Republican Lee Terry of Nebraska to say he felt he had been "politically slimed" by Markey.

Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro has major problems with the bill, which he outlined at the hearing. He said the bill as drafted deters innovation because of overbroad mandates that require every device to be accessible to all disablilities. Markey said that was just not true. He also asked Sergeant Major Jesse R. Acosta of the American Council of the Blind, a blind veteran who was testifying for the bill, what he would say to Shapiro and CEO of members like Sony and Microsoft when they argued for for voluntary solutions. He then asked Shapiro what he would say to Acosta.

Shapiro said that with all the reporting requirements and burdens, new accessible devices would never be funded. "The way the law is written, [companies] would have to prove that they are accessible to every type of disability. This isn't only about vision and hearing. The law as you've written it says every type of disability -- physical, mental -- everytyhing. It is impossible to know what that is. I think the role of Congress is to say: Here is what we are asking you to do. Here are the goals we are trying to reach. Now, go get it. Work with industry and the disability community and come back with a proposal that will meet these specific goals." He said the bill would apply to everything connected to the Internet, hardware and software.

That exchange prompted Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) to criticize Markey for what he said was putting Shapiro in an emotional bind by pitting a war hero against Shapiro's legitimate concerns about changes he thought needed to be made with the bill.

"I think it is unfortunate that the gentleman from Massachusetts did that," said Stearns, who added that Markey had done "the same type of thing with the V-chip and we all know the V-chip did not work."

Markey tried to break in, but Stearns refused to yield. Shapiro had also pointed to the V-chip, which Markey championed, as an example of a government mandate that had failed.

Terry took even stronger issue with Markey, saying it was characteristic of the tone of Democratic leadership. "I just feel politically slimed by the set-up question by Mr. Markey, and I apologize to everyone of you up there who had to be a part of that." He called it "intimidation of others' opinions."

"'How dare anyone have an opinion different,'" Terry continued. "'If you dare to express it openly, we will come after you.' And Mr. Shapiro, you have just seen what the new tone in Washington is."

Boucher broke in to move the hearing back to the issue of how to advance the goal of making Internet video and broadband over cell phones accessible to the disabled--closed captioning, video description, etc.--without discouraging innovation by making that innovation cost-prohibitive.

Boucher suggested that perhaps not mandating that devices be accessible so long as a reasonably priced application would do the job, or mandating some percentage of devices, rather than all of them, have various functions and price points, as is the case with cell phones.

Lise Hamlin, director of public policy of the Hearing Loss Association of America, said that would only work if companies really met the percentages and people understood what it is they are buying.

The bill has a waiver of the accessibility mandates for anything that would be an undue burden, but Shapiro said that standard was too strict and could deter companies from producing accessible devices.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), looking for some more common ground, asked whether the undue burden standard would be more palatable if it was applied to the potential revenues of the product rather than of the entire company. Shapiro held firm that it was the wrong standard, saying it should be a "readily achievable" standard. He said undue burden is more appropriate to the construction industry, "building something which would last 30 or 40 years. These technologies have a shelf life of two or three years at the max and you have to respond quickly. This would put a choke collar on innovation."

Inslee also suggested that rather than having the bill mandate a button on a remote control to activate closed captioning, it might be better to define based on the "user interface" rather than a particular technology, in case voice activation rather than buttons becomes the method of choice. "How do we design a system to capture new generations of innovation," he said, given that today's technology will soon be obsolete.

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that he wanted to try to get the bill to the floor next month to coincide with the 20th anniversay of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.