One of the latest battles within internet standards is around digital content accessibility – more specifically online video and podcast accessibility for people with disabilities. Now, one would think that this isn’t really something to argue about. Of course they should have access.

However, as seen in a recent University of California–Berkeley legal battle, that is not so simple.

When a judge ordered the University to make 20,000 public videos and podcasts accessible to people with disabilities, the university shut the program down and locked the content behind a firewall. It was just too expensive to go back and revise all the materials to make them accessible.

In a recent article, the questions around digital accessibility and access were looked at beyond just retroactively making these materials accessible. They point out that “accessible Web video is important. Deaf people need captions. Blind people need audio descriptions. People with photosensitivity need strobe warnings. There are tools that can modify video so that colorblind people can distinguish shades (especially important for interactive websites where, for example, everything on sale is marked in red). Controls for videos need to work for people using diverse interfaces.”

However, this summer, OpenStand affirming partner  World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released a new set of guidelines around “Encrypted Media Extensions (EME),” a standard that allows streaming video in HTML5 to contain Digital Rights Management software.  As the article puts it, “DRM technologies are ways that copyright owners try to limit users’ ability to copy, modify, or share their work.”  This creates a problem for people with disabilities. It used to be that they could alter content to make it accessible. These new standards could make that illegal.

W3C is certainly not ignorant to that issue. Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C, says that for the last 20 years, a W3C working group of accessibility experts reviews all specifications to make sure they support accessibility. They do, however, believe the responsibility for ensuring accessibility lies on the content creator – not the end user. In response to a complaint by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Brewer suggested “teasing apart the specific concerns rather than talking about accessibility too generally.”

While we all agree that accessibility is critical to an open and transparent internet, the path is is anything but easy. What are your thoughts on DRM, the new EME standards and the larger accessibility issue?