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ARL and ALA File Comments Opposing E-Reader Waiver Extension and Disability Tax

On October 27, 2014, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the American Library Association (ALA) filed comments* with the FCC opposing the petition for waiver extension by e-reader manufacturers. On January 28, 2014, the FCC granted a one-year waiver of its advanced communication services (ACS) accessibility rules for “basic e-readers” considered to be “single-purpose reading devices that consumers use for accessing text-based works (i.e., reading), not for other purposes such as ACS.” The e-reader manufacturers recently filed a petition requesting an extension of this waiver, which essentially creates a tax for disabled persons purchasing basic e-reader devices.

In the filing, ARL and ALA explain how basic e-readers are used, including for “co-primary uses” which allow the user to connect to the Internet and use the device to communicate with others via e-mail and social media services. ARL and ALA oppose the extension of the waiver, noting that denying the e-reader manufacturers’ petition “is consistent with the public interest. Finally, ARL and ALA argue that if a waiver is extended, that the FCC should narrow the scope of the waiver class and limit its duration. The full comments can be found here.

The comments focus on heavily on the public interest, noting:

As discussed above, the Kindles and other basic e-readers are capable of accessing ACS in potentially very convenient and useful ways. Access to these features on these devices, by disabled persons weighs heavily in the public interest. A denial of the waiver extension will increase public access to ACS through the Coalition’s e-readers. By requiring that the Coalition include accessible ACS functionality with the browser, the Commission will be supporting increased access for print-disabled members of the public through universally designed devices available to all consumers

Appallingly, the e-reader manufacturers defend their request for extension by arguing that persons with disabilities can purchase a more expensive device to address accessibility needs. ARL and ALA also point out that this proposal effectively creates a disability tax. Furthermore, not only would the proposal require a disabled person to pay more for a device with accessibility features, but such devices also have drawbacks such as heavier weight and less battery life:

Under the current e-reader ACS regime proposed by the Coalition and tentatively adopted by the Commission, disabled persons must pay a ‘device access tax’. By availing oneself of one of the ‘accessible options’ as suggested by the Coalition, a disabled person would pay at minimum $20 more a device for a Kindle tablet that is heavier and has less battery life than a basic Kindle e-reader. There is also some irony that the Commission’s current waiver rules would suggest that a blind person would need to purchase a device that is marketed for its screen with a high refresh rate, high resolution, and vibrantly colored screen in order to get the proper accessibility. In order to get the features that they do need, the blind will be forced to pay for an array of features from which they cannot benefit. It is completely inappropriate to ‘tax’ those with disabilities who seek information on the same terms at the sighted. By requiring that all of the Coalition’s products include accessible ACS, it opens a market for the print-disabled for the same e-readers at the same price points as for other sectors of the public.

ARL and ALA oppose extension of the waiver, but suggest that if the Commission does extend it, the Commission should amend the current waiver class and ensure that the extension is time-limited. ARL and ALA note that the “the current slate of basic e-readers offered by Coalition members do not fall under even this overly-expansive waiver class, sufficient evidence and the public interest weigh heavily in favor of modif[ication].” The comments suggest that one of the requirements be amended to read “the device is not offered or shipped to consumers with built-in ACS client applications, including any browser, and the device manufacturer does not develop ACS applications for its respective device” so that those e-reader devices that have a co-primary uses, such as to access e-mails, are not exempted. The comments note that with this amendment, “Any truly single purpose non-ACS devices will still fall under the proposed waiver class should the Coalition seek waiver in the future.”

*These comments were prepared in collaboration with students from American University Washington College of Law’s Glushko-Samuleson Intellectual Property Law Clinic*