EDITORIAL: Captioning cat videos

The FCC wants every cute ‘meow’ thoroughly documented

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Net neutrality is all the rage. Cable and cellphone companies are universally unpopular, so the unthinking demand that the government regulate access. Such regulation invites absurd “innovations,” such as the latest Federal Communications Commission proposal to require closed captioning on cat videos.

The commission will vote Friday whether to impose old television closed-captioning standards to short video clips available on Internet sites such as YouTube. The agency thinks that without government intervention, the hard-of-hearing will miss something when someone posts a video of a toddler toppling over or a mama cat hugging her kittens.

Since the FCC has no actual authority over the Internet, the rule — for now — will only apply to commercial broadcasters. When NBC News wants to post a clip online about a fast-breaking story, it will think twice about how important it is.

The technical challenges are significant. “Some programmers may not be able to repurpose televised captions,” explains Ann West Bobeck, a senior vice president for the National Association of Broadcasters, in a letter to the FCC, “or may be significantly editing captions for purposes of posting an online version of the captioned clip.”

Broadcasters, whose native tongue is argle-bargle, nevertheless understand that it’s not worth putting their licenses in jeopardy and will not offer material online. Everyone misses out, including the deaf.

The FCC can’t meet its own standards now. Because commissioners speak in jargon only insiders can understand, the closed-captioning for FCC open meetings is often comically bad. Professional caption services can’t keep up with the machine-gun flurry of inscrutable acronyms. “The NPRM about forcing CLECs to use ILEC or NECA rates” translates into a caption that reads: “See Lex use I lack or neck a rate.” (Clear speaking, like good writing, is highly prized on the Internet.)

Federal intervention isn’t needed. The Internet is the great equalizer, inviting the blind, deaf and disabled, the lame and the halt, to participate in a global conversation with nobody needing to know the age, race, sex or handicap of participants.

Government busybodies can’t resist the opportunity to tell people what to do. Two years ago, a federal judge cited the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law that tells supermarkets to install ramps enabling the wheelchair-bound to shop like the rest of us, to force Netflix, the video streaming giant, to caption its programming.

This would have happened, anyway. Netflix turned to volunteers to put captions on its old 1980s sitcoms and other programming, and the reception was enthusiastic. The MacArthur Foundation contributed money to put subtitles in videos in English and other languages, broadening access to U.S. content worldwide.

Such cooperative models are foreign to bureaucrats, who insist that one-size-fits-all. In 1998, the feds devised “Section 508” rules for government websites that, for example, forbid the use of on-screen color to convey information. The result is the federal websites are awash in beige and bland, lest the colorblind take offense.

The FCC is behind the times here, too. The agency seems unaware that it’s the year 2014, and still it doesn’t offer commission statements and agendas in the browser-friendly format used by nearly every other website on the Internet. Simple statements are only available in a Microsoft Word document, an Adobe PDF file or as ugly, unformatted text.

An agency so behind the times shouldn’t try to set standards for the Internet. If there’s a demand for captioning of videos of tumbling toddlers and cats doing what cats do, the market will make it happen.

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