New regulations to make Israeli web content accessible to people with disabilities went into effect October 25, and while no one seems to question the goal the guidelines themselves are being attacked on all sides. The Israel Internet Association, which has posted extensive Hebrew-language guides to the regulations, has even called on the Justice Ministry to make some changes due to the confusion caused website administrators.
The purpose of the regulations is to create a web surfing experience for people with vision, hearing, mobility and learning disabilities, among others, that is as close to possible as that for people without such disabilities. According to the Israel Internet Association, at least 20 percent of Internet users have disabilities that detract from their use of the Internet.
Under the new regulations, websites with video or audio clips must include spoken or text alternatives for people who have difficulty hearing or seeing them, or at least a brief summary of the inaccessible elements. Guidelines for tagging such content, for the benefit of blind or low-vision users using screen-reading software such as NVDA or JAWS.
The Israeli accessibility guidelines are based on those of the World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C, the Internet’s main international standards organization.
Existing websites have three years to come into compliance with the regulations, while new websites must be in compliance when launched. Website administrators who fail to comply could face fines of up to NIS 50,000, with no need to prove actual damages.
Some website administrators and developers complain that the regulations are rife with problems. They say the guidelines are vague and that there is confusion about who is bound by them. Many administrators and developers say all websites will be subject to the law, from government sites to personal blogs, and they fear that the large fines could tempt greedy lawyers into trying to profit at their expense.
The controversy has spurred the creation of a Facebook group to protest the regulations, as well as claims that they violate the right to free speech of those who cannot make their websites accessible.
The Israel Internet Association, which opposed the blanket enforcement of the accessibility guidelines, has called for moderation. “The main problem is they apply to all websites collectively; big and small, those with both heavy and light traffic. This is unrealistic and places a heavy burden on website administrators,” the organization said last week.
Yoram Lichtenstein, an attorney who specializes in technology and Internet law, recalled in a conversation with Haaretz about the new regulations the aphorism about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
“Despite the great detail, the uncertainty along with the costs involved with the regulations could lead to an Internet standstill until the first wave of lawsuits is over, and the courts have had time to interpret the lawmakers’ intentions. Then, we’ll understand that perhaps not every website need be made accessible, not every video clip needs editing. But perhaps then it will be too late,” Lichtenstein said.
The Justice Ministry said in a statement that misleading information about the regulations has been made public. It said the regulations do not in fact apply to every website, “but rather only those that provide services to the public, such as online stores, or websites that provide information about events (such as concerts).”
Specifically, the ministry said, “It must be made clear that the regulations do not apply to blogs, Facebook pages or private websites that do not sell products or provide public services.”
But that’s not the final world. Many private websites nevertheless “provide public services.” According to Ilana Beinisch, an Internet and technology accessibility consultant, “The law applies to all websites. As soon as a website provides any kind of service to the general public, the law applies to it ... They didn’t define ‘the general public.’ If I create a website of pictures for my family, and other people can access it, do I have to make it accessible for people with disabilities?” Beinisch asks.
She herself is legally blind, so she is familiar with the issue on a personal levels as well. Beinisch explains that many Israeli web developers are unfamiliar with accessibility guidelines, mostly because no agency has specified which websites must follow the new regulations.
And while the law allows for exemptions for financial or technological reasons, these reasons have not been adequately defined.
In a response, the Justice Ministry said: “Those responsible for making websites accessible are not the accessibility authorities, but rather website developers themselves. The Israel Internet Association, which along with the equal rights commission worked on the wording of the regulations, is currently preparing the Israeli regulations, as well as implementing accessibility regulations among Israeli websites.”