Will the proposed EU directive on web accessibility lead to confusion and hinder innovation?

Following on from my blogpost last month on the European Commission’s draft directive on the accessibility of public sector websites, I have an article in the forthcoming edition of C&L Magazine, the journal for the Society of Computers and the Law.

Under the proposed directive, new EU-wide rules will be introduced setting out specific requirements in relation to the accessibility of certain websites operated by public sector organisations. In the article, I analyse the impact of the proposed directive on public authorities.

If implemented as it currently stands, the directive raises a number of concerns:

  • Firstly, organisations are presumed to comply with the new law if they achieve Level AA conformance with the W3C‘s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). The problem with WCAG is that whilst they provide a good starting point for accessible design, they are only one part of the wider accessibility jigsaw. Indeed, legislating in a manner that requires compliance with a fixed set of technical guidelines is concerning, because WCAG (and therefore the law) will inevitably fail to keep up with evolving technologies for delivering online services (for example, mobile or rich media).
  • This approach could have been mitigated by allowing organisations to deviate from WCAG compliance, if they can justify why this is an appropriate thing to do (as the UK Equality Act provides), but the draft directive does not provide such flexibility.
  • Finally, and perhaps more concerningly, the directive does not explain how it is intended to interact with pre-existing national laws that apply to the accessibility of services provided over the web, where a breach is based on actual discrimination taking place. This creates the very real risk that a public authority could comply with the requirements of the directive, whilst simulateously being in breach of its obligations under the Equality Act (or vice versa).

Whilst the directive may help achieve the Commission’s primary stated aim of removing barriers in the market for the provision of web development services in the EU (by ensuring that public sector organisations are obliged to set standardised technical criteria for accessibility), the directive is a fairly blunt instrument. I remain unconvinced that the directive will have such a positive impact upon the accessibility of websites to users with disabilities.

A far better approach would be to look at adopting the guidance contained in the British Standards Institute’s British standard on commissioning accessible websites.

You can read the article in full on the SCL website.

Martin Sloan

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