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Breaking down the latest regulation for online video accessibility

  • Today, the US Senate unanimously passed the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (S. 3304) with only slight modifications to the version passed in the House.  Last week, on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (H.R. 3101), a watered-down version of the bill introduced by Representative Ed Markey (MA), with a convincing vote of 348 to 23.  The original Act led to the existing FCC regulation that requires most television programming to provide closed captions for the hearing impaired.  Any mandate that requires sweeping changes takes time to implement and enforce; and broadcast captioning was not fully enforced until 2006.

    Captions provide a critical means of consuming video content for the 36 million people in the U.S. who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Captions also offer a method to watch the television in environments in which the sound cannot be used.

    The two bills that have been passed will expand the requirement for web video captioning and accessibility services.  Specifically, they will require that any captioned television program be captioned when delivered over the internet; a completely reasonable requirement.  They also require all devices large enough for video to be equipped to support captioning functionality.

    This news comes as a big step forward for accessibility.  However, the requirements have been significantly reduced from the initial version of the bill introduced in the House.  An emotional, yet accurate description of the exclusions in the new version of the bill can be found on CaptionAction2.  The original bill introduced earlier in the current House term called for all “television-type” programming distributed over the internet to be captioned.  In other words, any professional content created solely for internet distribution would also have to be captioned, not including user-generated content as seen on YouTube.  While a bit vague in what would have been included, it is clear that the mandate for captions would have been far more widespread than the simplified bills that got passed.

    Nonetheless, this new legislation is a huge step forward for accessibility.  Even though the new law will be limited in scope, the far-reaching and open nature of the internet provides other means of pushing the cause forward.  It would be no surprise to think that the new bills passed got an extra boost in momentum when the internet’s largest online video platform, YouTube, became vocal about the need for and benefits of video captions.  And they’ve really walked the walk by launching a plethora of tools, including captions and interactive transcripts, to add to and support the corresponding video.

    Captions have a far greater potential benefit to internet users than to television viewers.  The Internet is driven by text.  Since videos cannot be read, indexed, or navigated efficiently without the text equivalent, time-synchronized transcripts not only provide a worthwhile accessibility benefit, but they also have additional value that only the internet could unlock.  For starters, text provides a means for search – of the SEO variety and within a large archive.

    The internet is all about distributing information, and then navigating it.  That means people all over the world are watching videos posted here in the U.S.  Captions provide a fantastic tool for ESL students or anyone trying to use video to improve their English.  Captions and transcripts also provide the most efficient means for translation to other languages.  With so much communication taking place in video form over the internet, such as webinars, webcasts and video conferences, accessibility solutions of all kinds are in high demand.

    H.R. 3101 and S. 3304 may not have dramatically changed the legal requirements for online video, but they are a significant step forward.  Congratulations to all those who fought so hard to make this legislation happen!

    So what do you think?  Is legislation necessary, or will organizations determine that transcription and captioning of web content has a worthwhile ROI regardless of any mandate?

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