Full-access feds?

Bash a gimp. Steal the cane from a blind man and hit him upside the head with it. Talk dirty to a deaf woman while her back is turned. Do it. Do it! Or the feds will come and take away your right to make Web sites!

The preceding voice of evil was brought to you by the Freedom Forum, an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting free speech on the Internet. At least it was until last week, when for some reason it decided that Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was out to get us.

Section 508 could be broadly—very broadly—described as an Americans with Disabilities Act for the Net. It states that the federal government and any state accepting certain disability-related fed funding must, by August 2000, make its information and data equally available to folks with and without disabilities. For instance, if you are the Postal Service (gee, I’m sorry), and I’m a blind person visiting your Web site, you can’t design your site in such a way that I have to “choose the red or the green button to continue.” If I am the IRS, I can’t offer tax advice in only a streaming-audio format; I will be required to make a written version available for visitors with hearing loss. Get the idea?

Hey, equal access for all! Sounds warm and fuzzy to me. But the Freedom Forum is lathering up big-time. Where civil-rights advocates see increased freedom of information, government watchers see the beginnings of wholesale encroachment on the rights of Web weavers to design their sites as they see fit. According to some observers, what starts as feds-only legislation is destined to run roughshod over Web sites in the private sector, accomplishing the kind of Net censorship that years of anti-encryption, anti-privacy, and anti-indecency laws and lobbying have not.

I’m no fan of ham-handed legislation, and god knows the federal government has given me no faith in its ability to draft intelligent laws or guidelines for the Net. But seeing the geek press go flame-on against this legislation is not only bothersome from a some-reporters-wouldn’t-look-at-primary-source-material-if-it-was-clamped-to-their-ass standpoint but—where was I?—oh yeah, bothersome from a mindless-use-of-technology standpoint.

I know a few folk surfing with disabilities, but I know a lot of folks surfing with older browsers—through inertia, or because downloading and running an abortion like Internet Explorer 4.0 was enough to convince most non-geeks that sometimes there’s not a whole lot to be said for progress. There are a lot of people who don’t think that release of a new browser (or plug-in) on MicroMacro-RealScape’s part constitutes a 20MB download emergency on their part.

Usually, the bells and whistles that weigh down high-bandwidth sites are pretty trivial; most sites that do a lot of that kind of thing offer a low-bandwidth version. However, there are always a few jokers out there who hasten to slap on a coat of whatever technology is trendy. No technique is too new to require users to download before they cross your threshold; no graphic is too big and stupid.

At the moment, the feds are still working out what they mean by “accessible technology,” and even what information technology is covered by Section 508. We can get a good idea about what might be on the table, though, from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Accessibility Guidelines.

Those guidelines differentiate between what developers must, should, and might do to make their sites accessible. Some of the must-dos: provide a text equivalent or description for each graphic; don’t force people to use scripts or applets; put titles on things. If all else fails and you just can’t color in the lines, make a low-bandwidth version of your site with equivalent info.

Call me dense (out of earshot, please), but I can’t seem to get as worked up about putting titles on things as about, say, the Communications Decency Act. There is a world of difference between legislation that aims to keep certain information offline and legislation that aims to make online information available to more people. Section 508 isn’t anti-Net but antiStupid Net Tricks. As the Constitution-defending troops at the Freedom Forum know full well, important information deserves to be expressed as clearly and directly as possible.


agunn@seattleweekly.com

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