Last week, as more than one million record-setting comments on network neutrality rumbled into its Open Internet docket, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hosted an event focused on accessing social media at its headquarters in Washington, DC.
The hearing room was about half full of advocates, nonprofit workers, government staffers, and concerned citizens as the day began, but was clearly missing one important constituency: representatives from the technology companies that own and operate social media platforms, with LinkedIn being the one exception. Despite a lively backchannel on Twitter at the #AccSocMedia hashtag, no one from Twitter, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Tumblr, or Instagram were present. Not surprisingly, the absence led Fedscoop journalist Greg Otto to report that when it comes to accessibility, social media companies are anti-social.
The reason why they weren't present might be that social media companies realize that they are not very accessible, said Justin Herman, the federal government's lead for social media in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at the U.S. General Services Administration. The companies know that they're "terrible" on accessibility, he said.
If you're unclear about what that means, exactly, think about how you would browse Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest if you were blind or deaf. How would you navigate the interfaces, interact with other users, or understand what's depicted in the updates?
As a series of panels explored, many technology companies aren't doing well on this front, and while there are third-party applications that make social media more accessible, millions of Americans are operating on those platforms at a disadvantage.
Or watch the video below and imagine interacting with Facebook and Twitter through an iPhone.
At present, the three levers that are most likely to lead to improvement in accessibility at technology companies — users, media, and government — are not fully engaged. Unless users know people with disabilities or are personally affected, their participation in campaigns to push Facebook to change may not be robust. Mainstream media reporting has tended to be far more focused upon surveillance and privacy than accessibility. Federal agencies, including the FCC, are constrained by legal authorities and jurisdiction, with respect to the private sector, although they can proactively take steps to improve the accessibility of social media in government and must comply with Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act online.
When I asked about these issues at last week's FCC forum, I learned several things.
First, the FCC is the first federal agency to set up a consumer support line for American Sign Language, enabling deaf or hard-of-hearing consumers to make a direct video call to a specialist at the FCC to file an informal complaint or to obtain information. Officials at the FCC expressed hope that other federal agencies would adopt the method for consumer support.
Second, the FCC already has some jurisdiction over social media platforms on this count, or at least services that include text-based messages and Voice over IP. Per a October 2013 order, "advanced communication services" "products or services offered in interstate commerce must be accessible, unless not achievable." According to an FCC official in the FCC Disability Rights Office, US citizens have been able to file complaints regarding the accessibility of advanced communication services (ACS) since October 2013. According to the FCC, they have not received one complaint, yet.
Third, the Department of Justice (DoJ) still has not completed a rulemaking on modernization of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), nor decided whether and how the ADA should apply to websites, including social media. According to an update from the Law Offices of Lainey Feingold, the DoJ is still dragging its feet, announcing that the DoJ has postponed promulgating regulations for private sector websites until March 2015, at the earliest.
US courts are split as to whether websites are "places of public accommodation," and thus, under the ADA, prohibited from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disabilities. In 2012, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts held that Netflix's "Watch Instantly" service was such a place and therefore must ensure accessibility. "Decisions in the Second, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals also have found that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends to non-physical places," noted Diane M. Saunders in an article for Ogletree Deekins. "However, the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals have all limited the application of the ADA to physical spaces."
In the absence of ADA rules, people building websites, apps, and services in the private sector have to decide upon their own standards. In the future, I hope other technology companies follow Facebook's efforts to make Facebook accessible for everyone, and that representatives of Facebook attend future forums to highlight its efforts to increase accessibility for people with disabilities and to hear feedback from people who would "Like" more accessibility there. (There's more going on under the hood there than people may realize.) Whether they work for the government, the private sector, or an enterprise, when product managers design for accessibility, they help every user of software through more usable interfaces, clearer navigation, and increased productivity.
As social media becomes more of a political force, acting as a public square and a crucial channel for customer service, businesses and government agencies need to consider how and where they are accessible to all. Disability or illness hinders many people from using the internet, as the Pew Internet & American Life Project found in 2011. Given the reality of human resources managers considering the online footprints of applicants, ethically or not, lack of participation there could be a real issue for people seeking communications jobs in the 21st century, or even anti-democratic if they wish to fully participate in the online town halls that have now become part of the way campaigns, Congress, and government engage the public.
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.