Legal Requirements for Closed Captioning of Online Video in the U.S.: ADA, Section 508, CVAA, and FCC Mandates
Updated: June 26, 2018
If you produce or distribute videos in the United States, your content may be subject to federal regulations regarding accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing. The rules are adapting to the digital age, so it’s important to be aware of what laws are on the books and which ones apply to you.
Here’s a quick overview of the most important video accessibility laws in the US:
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Passed in 1990, the ADA set landmark accessibility requirements that affect both private and public entities. Just as the ADA requires handicap ramp access to buildings, it demands that “auxiliary aids” be made available to anyone with a disability. In the case of the deaf and hard of hearing, that means providing closed captioning for videos.
Closed captioning or video transcriptions are required for:
- “Public entities,” i.e., state and local governments, in both internal and external video communication.
- “Places of public accommodations,” which is a business in any of the following industries. (Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt.)
- Lodging (e.g., hotels)
- Food service (e.g., restaurants)
- Entertainment (e.g., movie theaters)
- Public displays (e.g., museums)
- Public venues (e.g., libraries)
- Service industry (e.g., doctor’s offices)
- Retail (e.g., shops)
- Public Transportation (e.g., train stations)
- Education (e.g., universities)
- Recreation (e.g., stadiums)
- Social Services (e.g., day care)
- Fitness (e.g., gyms)
While the ADA doesn’t specifically address online video (it was written in 1990, after all), legal precedent set by a 2012 law suit categorized Netflix, a purely virtual business, as a ‘place of public accommodation’ and therefore required video captioning. The ADA is long overdue for revision to explicitly define a place of public accommodation in the context of the Internet. Until then, the consensus is that any website or online business that fits into one of the 12 categories above is subject to ADA regulations. This would include colleges and universities.
Rehabilitation Act (Sections 508 & 504)
Enacted in 1973, this law originally addressed disability discrimination for federal entities or organizations receiving federal funding. Two amendments, Sections 504 and 508, broaden the act’s application to online video content.
Section 504 essentially makes accessibility for individuals with disabilities a civil right. Failure to accommodate individuals with disabilities can result in a discrimination law suit. This applies to both federal agencies and any entity that receives federal funding.
Section 508 specifically demands accessibility for electronic media or IT in federal programs or services. While this section doesn’t explicitly extend beyond federal agencies, many states passed laws that do extend its reach to organizations that receive federal funding. This includes many colleges, universities, cultural and arts institutions, research facilities, etc. Further, the Assistive Technology Act will not provide funding to states unless they guarantee that all programs – including colleges and universities – will comply with Section 508.
There is some debate as to how far-reaching this law is. Expect to see clarity in a proposed rule that would refresh Section 508 closed captioning standards to comply with WCAG 2.0 success criteria.
21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)
The CVAA requires closed captioning for online video content that was originally broadcast on TV with captions. The CVAA does not cover video content that aired only online and never on television.
To allow media producers a chance to catch up with their backlog of content, the CVAA has rolling deadlines for compliance. Currently, video producers or distributors must caption applicable videos within 45 days of being put online. Upcoming deadlines are:
- March 30, 2015: Video providers or distributors are given a 30-day window to add captions to online video airs on TV.
- March 30, 2016: That window shortens to 15 days from the time the video airs on TV.
Mostly the CVAA affects TV broadcast media companies. If your video content never airs on TV, this law doesn’t apply to you.
FCC Mandates for Closed Captioning of Online Video
Numerous FCC mandates for online video programming were passed in 2014 to build up closed captioning rules for IP-delivered content. Like the CVAA, FCC rulings apply to online video that previously appeared on television. Here are the most prominent updates to FCC rules for online video:
Online Video Clips & Deadlines
In addition to the shortening window of turnaround time for captioning broadcast media, there are upcoming deadlines that apply to video clips and montages. Beginning January 1, 2016, the FCC requires that excerpts from TV programming include captions. The following year, this rule extends to montages as well, so clusters of video clips will need to be fully captioned. Finally, by July 1, 2017, captions will be required for live or nearly-live footage within 12 hours of airing.
The FCC has clarified quality standards for television captioning, which set the precedent for online video captioning as a whole.
- Accuracy: captions must relay the speaker’s exact words with correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar with 99% accuracy. No paraphrasing. Honor the original tone and intent of the speaker.
- Time Synchronization: captions must align with the time the words are spoken. Captions must not proceed too quickly for the viewer to read.
- Program Completeness: captions must be included from start to finish.
- Placement: captions must be positioned on the screen without blocking important content. Font size should be reasonably legible.
As of January 1, 2014, the FCC mandates new user control requirements for consuming online video which previously aired with captions on television. This involves an application or plug-in to video players which allows the viewer to select font type, size, color, opacity, and edge style for their caption display.
If your organization is affected by the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, CVAA, or FCC rulings, you will need closed captioning on your online video or else risk fines and lawsuits. Check the 3Play blog for updates on video captioning regulations and deadline reminders.
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