Like the look of the new iPhone? Better buy it soon, before the government assumes for itself the power to mandate the features and design of every phone, computer and global positioning system (GPS) - or any other Internet-connected device with a screen.
Congress is currently considering legislation, HR 3101, that would require Internet service providers and manufacturers of Internet-enabled devices to make all their offerings accessible to individuals with every type of disability. It’s a noble goal, and one the industry has made great strides in reaching on its own. However, the problem comes in the way the new requirements would be implemented.
Just on social justice merits, the bill faces an immediate snag. If manufacturers are required to load up every device they sell with an array of new features - some of which may conflict with each other and all of which will add cost and complexity - what will happen to the most affordable products intended for consumers with low incomes? Answer: They’ll become more expensive because of features most people won’t use or need.
If this legislation passes, it would immediately put the federal government in the product design business, telling manufacturers what buttons they must include and what they should do. It would also give expansive new powers to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), allowing the agency to confiscate products and giving manufacturers little recourse for appeal.
We’ve been down this road before. In the late 1990s, Congress mandated that all televisions contain a “V-chip,” intended to help parents keep children from viewing inappropriate content. This similarly well-meaning effort was a disaster from the start, with studies finding the vast majority of parents have never used the overly complex technology. Innovation in parental control technology has happened through market forces entirely outside the congressionally anointed V-chip solution.
While individuals with disabilities need and deserve access to the newest communications technologies, free-market competition is already working to make this happen. For example, the new legislation would require every single remote control to have a closed caption button, whether or not the purchaser of the remote wants that feature. However, according to a product search on Amazon, there are at least 20 remote controls on the market that already offer that feature, one priced as low as $5.
The bill has many other requirements, including audio output of on-screen menus. Even here, CNET product reviews provide device comparison charts that show caption-enabled mobile media devices ranging from Blackberries to iPhones and the Sling Player Mobile, as well as wireless carrier guidance for accessible products and services, and GPS software and devices for the visually impaired.
The technology industry takes these issues very seriously, and other initiatives are ongoing. Last November, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) formed a working group to develop a new industry standard for Internet closed captioning. The group includes content providers, broadcasters, captioning and subtitling solution providers, professional equipment manufacturers and consumer electronics manufacturers. The SMPTE has reached out to the disability community to exchange information, solicit feedback and ensure the needs of disabled individuals are taken into account during the development of this standard. The group expects to complete work on its first set of standards later this year. And the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is already updating closed captioning standards for three-dimensional television, even though 3DTV broadcast standards for are not yet in place.
There are some promising ideas in the legislation. There is clearly a need for better communication of the accessible products and services that are already available in the marketplace. The provision establishing a clearinghouse for this type of information would provide an inventory of accessible technology available in the marketplace, enabling the industry to determine where we are meeting the needs of the disabled community and where we need to do better.
Unfortunately, as a whole, the approach set forth in HR 3101 would not result in more products being accessible or more innovative designs. Rather, it would result in overly burdensome compliance costs, less variety of products and would hinder United States competitiveness in the global market.
As an alternative to the new mandates, the CEA has proposed the development of an advisory committee consisting of all affected stakeholders working collaboratively to develop industry-led solutions for Internet-protocol-based video programming services and devices. This committee would determine the most feasible technical solutions, and then provide its recommendations to the FCC. This approach would see the government setting the goals, but allow the technology industry to work out the details - using engineers, not lobbyists.
Gary Shapiro is president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents some 2,000 consumer electronics companies.