A List Apart

This is How the Web Gets Regulated

This is How the Web Gets Regulated

Basic web accessibility is a known commodity now. Web applications can almost be made accessible; eventually web application accessibility will also be a known commodity, too. Those are clear wins.

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But nearly ten years after specifications first required it, online captioning still pretty much does not exist. That’s probably going to change, and the way it’s going to change is by government regulation.

Does that strike you as unthinkable? Do you view the web as a libertarian place where old-media laws barely apply, if at all? Well, prepare for a shock. Legislation is probably coming.  And not only should you let it happen, you should get behind it—but only if it’s done using open standards.

Captioning is required, but you wouldn’t know it from the real world

If you’re reading A List Apart, then you know that every web-accessibility specification requires captioning of multimedia for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. WCAG 1 (and the Samurai corrections), WCAG 2, Section 508—they’re all the same. You have to caption your online video.

Some specs also allow transcripts, which are as good as useless for all but the shortest and simplest of videos. Other specs may also allow sign language, which, “Deafness and the User Experience” notwithstanding, makes video accessible to a minority within a minority.

“Closed” captioning is a problem, not a solution

Online captioning—and let’s define that as captioning on anything delivered by internet protocols, including a download to your iPod—barely exists, and one reason for that is an insistence on closed captioning, i.e., captioning you have to turn on. This is a failed holdover from television broadcasting, where a single channel has to work for everyone. That’s why captions are hidden in broadcast signals.

But that method has no relevance whatsoever to the online world, where you can serve up as many versions of a video as you like. Closed captioning exists to hide captioning from sensitive hearing people, not to provide captioning to people who need it and will never turn it off.

“Closecaptioning” is a semi-familiar concept to a lot of people, for whom it is the single indivisible word I just quoted. Everyone with more than five years’ experience doing captioning has done mostly closed captioning or nothing but that. As a result, everybody in the business is going full steam ahead trying to gin up some kind of closed-captioning system for online video. It’s all they know.

The four major online video types (QuickTime, Windows Media, RealPlayer, and the one that ate them all, Flash) technically support closed captioning in one way or another—often several ways. Hence every video format needs its own specific closed captions. Are you, like the BBC, transcoding video into dozens of formats for the iPlayer and other platforms? Well, guess what: You’ll have to transcode your caption formats, too. Does that sound easy, “because it’s just text”? It isn’t easy.

  • You can’t rely on Unicode character encoding. Systems have an annoying tendency to use their own encoding, or rely on the encoding of a text file, or simply not declare one and hope for the best.
  • Caption positioning isn’t always preserved, or even supported the same way across platforms. (There are no right-justified captions in RealPlayer, for example.) There are people who, to this very day, do not understand that captions must be positioned. (Such as captioners in the British Isles, who set nearly every caption bottom-center.) Color isn’t always supported, either.
  • Fonts are a mess everywhere in captioning, but any captioning source that assumes monospaced fonts (e.g., an analogue TV captioning system) is going to break in unpredictable ways when translated to a proportional font—even to a nonfont such as Arial. (Did you center your captions by typing little space characters in front of the line? Those spaces are going to collapse.)

Fundamentally, closed captioning of online video requires two or more files—the video file, the caption file, and probably a third file to mate the two. Do you think those files are a happy nuclear family that will never be split up?

What about players? How do you turn captions on and off? The YouTube technique (see below) could not possibly be worse—an unlabeled menu that only works via mouse. An interface like that one will violate the (universally ignored) User Agent Accessibility Guidelines and common sense, yet this is exactly the sort of half-baked, inaccessible, untested interface design you can expect on all players.

That’s just a partial list of the problems with closed captioning of online video. But everyone who is even pretending to address the issue of captioning is rushing headlong down that path. I’ve been telling people for years that closed captioning, as a general approach, just is not going to work for online video. That will continue to be true even if I’m the only person saying it and everyone is tired of my saying it.

What’s the alternative? Open captioning, i.e., captioning everyone sees. You’d have two files,  a captioned video and an uncaptioned video. Pick one and you’re done. The issue of typography becomes even more important, and you’d need an external file to make videos searchable, but open captioning just works, right then and there, with no hassle.

The voluntary approach

Thus far, online captioning has been strictly voluntary. How well has that been working out? Not very well. Online captioning is effectively nonexistent, and not a single attempt to remedy the problem has worked.

Of course the biggest news is Google YouTube’s alleged support for captioning. We’re all supposed to applaud this, but in fact YouTube’s implementation further entrenches the confusion between captions and subtitles. The explanatory video that YouTube produced mixes captions and subtitles and doesn’t even bother to position them correctly. (It also pretends that the way to make sign language accessible to non-speakers is just to add subtitles. Blind people can’t watch the signing or read the subtitles.)

In effect, YouTube’s presentation format is subtitling—bottom-centered titles, typically two lines max, (though sometimes up to four). And this is one of many cases where typography pretty much hasn’t been considered. I hope you can read white Helvetica or Arial on a black mask.

Three-line centered caption under one-line speaker ID

Noticeably absent from YouTube’s announcement was a link to the now-ancient announcement of Google Video’s support for captioning. (Sort of like how people forgot about a functionally equivalent announcement from AOL in 2006.) A year later, there are still only about 100 videos with captioning on Google Video, and some of those are merely subtitled, not captioned. This is a failure by any standard. While the YouTube captioning page specifically states that captions can be searched, you can’t search YouTube to find all the captioned videos. So who knows how many there really are? In all likelihood, next to none.

That bit about searching captions is important. One reason Google has added captioning is for accessibility, but the primary reason is to make video searchable. Google Video even wants you to upload a timecoded transcript, and Google separately launched a limited speech-recognition service. I want everything searchable, too, but I’d prefer a bit more honesty up front. They’re mostly doing this for business reasons, not to help deaf people. (And now they’ll even machine-translate your “captions” for you. Machine translation will work as badly there as it does anywhere else.)

In the wake of the YouTube announcement, for some reason TechCrunch sponsored 5,000 free “captioned” videos via SubPLY, another of the start ups in that field (cf. DotSUB). The use cases that were listed in TechCrunch’s announcement were actually for subtitling—yet another confusion. And the results aren’t great—you can get two sets of captions, each unreadable for different reasons, right on top of one another.

Two lines of captions on top of two narrower, taller lines

What Google did was to implement yet another technical variation of a voluntary closed-captioning system. Of course it isn’t working. It has never worked before.


Laws and regulations may well need to be passed requiring the captioning of online video.

  • Nothing will change in the U.S. in the foreseeable future. Regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (recently renewed) may be expanded to include captioning at movie theaters and at stadiums, but that’s about it. A draft bill to expand accessibility to the online sphere is just that, a bill.

  • In Canada, an important yet almost unknown set of hearings  takes place in November 2008, held by the CRTC, the broadcasting regulator. Its initial filings have challenged broadcasters to prove why their websites should not be “W3C compliant.” That could mean anything, but it certainly means that online video would be captioned. There’s been other discussion about requiring online captioning. This would be a departure, as the legislation that empowers the CRTC to regulate broadcasting does not apply to the internet—although, after a separate hearing that’s coming up, that may change.

    But the Canadian constitution (the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and the Canadian Human Rights Act arguably supersede that other legislation.  In short, disabled people’s right to be free of discrimination trumps the belief, however fallacious, that the internet cannot or should not be regulated.

    Additionally, regulations in the province of Ontario may unwittingly require national and transnational corporations doing business there to caption everything.

  • In Australia, a much-delayed senate inquiry into captioning may or may not be proceeding, but, as a separate discussion paper explains, it explicitly covers online captioning. The timing is interesting, coming as it does after the expiry of an exemption from prosecution granted to Australian TV broadcasters in return for captioning significantly less than 100% of their programming. One of three things could happen—nothing, new legislation, or another human rights exemption in return for some captioning.

The Canadian and Australian cases are important. Once either or both of these constitutional democracies require online captioning, dominoes begin to topple. The effects will be felt in the U.S. Of course the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Broadcasters will fight any captioning requirements. But Canada and Australia also speak English, and the effect of requiring captioning there would be to require captioning in America, too. It becomes impossible in practice to serve a video with captions to Canada or Australia and serve the same video without captions to the U.S. You’ve got only one video in the first place; that’s why you went with closed captioning.

Who’s writing the standards?

How are people trying to solve the entire problem of standardization of online video? By commissioning new sets of standards from organizations that have something to gain from the process.

First there’s the technology, which is a matter of technical agreement. In broad terms, the technical standards for online captioning are settled. While there isn’t as much documentation as anyone might like and the standards may be lousy, they are established.

The bigger problem is one of methods. How exactly do you do captioning? For 30 years, this has been a matter of opinion and nothing more. I have a pretty solid set of opinions; some mom-and-pop captioners make it up as they go along; and in between those poles you can find everything from committee-driven nonsense to ironclad ideologies, neither of them based on fact.

It’s curiously difficult—even when, as I do, have three linear feet of reference materials and research papers backing you up—to knock some patently ridiculous ideas out of the water, but ultimately no one “knows” how to do captioning. Instead, everyone merely insists their way is best. Essentially, video accessibility for deaf people rests on opinions—often poorly justified, if at all, and vehemently defended. All of this begins to explain why, in broad terms, captioning sucks. (It does.)

Still: who is writing the standards?

  • In Canada, the CRTC worked out a deal with the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) to write yet another so-called standard for Canadian captioning—totally in secret. The authors aren’t captioning experts. (Some are deaf, as if that’s all that mattered, and one of those authors struck out once before with captioning standards.). The “standard” won’t be user-tested. This is the same thing the CAB tried once before, with dismal results. And the whole thing won’t be done in time for the November 2008 hearing.

    Reading between the lines, the CRTC plans to force broadcasters, and presumably netcasters, to use the so-called standard written by the industry it claims to regulate. Industry self-regulation is one of the biggest stories of 2008—news that has apparently failed to reach the CRTC. Self-regulation works about as well in captioning as it does in high finance. The difference is there’s less money involved.

  • In the U.S., Google, Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft announced the formation of the Internet Captioning Forum. You probably read the announcement on various blogs. Did you ever read anything else? Like the fact that, while the announcement claims the four companies “joined” with WGBH, WGBH essentially runs the project?

    WGBH is a public-television station in Boston. WGBH did the earliest open captioning on U.S. television and has been captioning continuously for 30 years. I used to be a big supporter (I was sending them typewritten letters in the 1970s), and I’ve visited their operations several times. But, my confidence in WGBH has been shaken, not least by its foolish decision to close down its main captioning operations. They invented a whole technology for captioning first-run movies, and they’ve done a lot of work in online captioning. Like the CAB, WGBH is working in secret. And all roads lead to WGBH.

    • In a conflict of interest, the accessibility manager at AOL used to work at WGBH. So this is a WGBH operation through and through. Even the official URL, InternetCCForum.org, redirects to WGBH. And where is Mozilla looking for a solution to its captioning problem? WGBH, of course.
    • Nonprofit WGBH is an active competitor in the captioning market. This means there’s money at stake. Watch The Simpsons on TV in the U.S. or Canada and you’re watching WGBH captions, for example. Not coincidentally, WGBH is also first on the list of YouTube’s suggested captioning service providers.
    • WGBH isn’t done there. They’ve also got a U.S. federal grant to research captioning on PDAs (and on planes). A recent e-newsletter recruited subjects for a user test of “preferences” for fonts and other topics. Since this is the same organization that produced subpar research on HDTV fonts, somehow I expect that PDA users will be asked to choose between Arial and Courier.

How well do you think all of this is going to work out? Do you trust secret groups to set standards for a complex communication medium like captioning? I don’t.

This is a time for legislation

Broadcasters and internet titans prefer an inside job. They prefer outcomes they can predict, if not control. They want minor tweaks to a system that’s a proven failure, all the while making it look like they’re solving the problem.

The only effective method of increasing the quantity of captioning is actually on the horizon. That method is to bring the force of law to bear to actually require it. Nothing else has worked.

Captioning is a giant crater in the online accessibility moonscape. If you support web accessibility and accept that it isn’t just about blind people, you need to support online captioning. Maybe there are other things you also need to support, but we aren’t talking about those today.

If you accept the proposition that, beyond simple fairness and the technical fact that the web can be accessible, a fundamental reason to provide accessible online content is because people with disabilities have a legal right to it, you need to get behind whatever measures are necessary to make those rights real. Broadcasters in many countries are already regulated and have to provide captioning, as do cinema operators in a few places. Fundamentally, what we’re making accessible is the moving image—it’s film, it’s television, it’s video. It may be other things, such as screencasts. But at root, the delivery method should not matter.

If a deaf person has a legal right to watch TV or movies with captions, that person has a legal right to watch online video with captions. The voluntary approach has done practically nothing to make that possible. Laws or human-rights regulations are necessary and inevitable. You should get behind them.

If you think this opens the door to wholesale regulation of the internet, it probably doesn’t—or at least not in the manner I expect you’re worried about. You could still publish anything you wanted within the existing legal limits (the internet already is regulated). It’s just that some or all video would have to be captioned. Again: I want you to support that.

Neither the technical standards nor the methods for captioning should be decided behind closed doors by parties with money to lose or gain in the process. One could make a fair case that legally required captioning based on “standards” presented as a fait accompli by industry does not pass the sniff test. Government regulation of online accessibility should be based on open standards.

If not, what’s the alternative?  Has anything else worked?

Call to action

  • Submit a comment to the CRTC hearing on accessibility. (Good luck figuring out how to do it. Try sending mail to the listed contact, Sylvie Bouffard. Or use the main contact form.) Doing so before December 2008 would be most helpful, but the process won’t conclude until January 12, 2009, at the earliest.

    If you agree with the following, tell the CRTC you support a requirement that at least some kinds of online video must be captioned—such captions being created only on the basis of open standards.

    I’m not even going to pretend I’m not asking you to explicitly support me and my research project, the Open & Closed Project. Tell the CRTC you don’t think a “standard” written by the same broadcasters who have blown it for 30 years amounts to much—if you believe that, of course. And if you believe something else, say that instead. You don’t have to be in Canada to take this step.

  • Show some support for an independent accessibility advocacy group down under, Media Access Australia, which submitted quite a solid response (PDF) to the Australian discussion paper on access services. This step would make sense mostly for Australian residents.


  • Now here’s the biggie: The only way anything is going to happen in the United States is if somebody files a lawsuit. I need one or more deaf people to file a suit (possibly class-action) against one or more “content providers” on the grounds that uncaptioned video amounts to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    At the very least, the case could be made that online presentation of a moving image that was previously captioned for a different kind of presentation (e.g., television, home video) should also be captioned.

    Don’t think this is doomed to failure just because you’re going up against companies with more money than God. Major studios settled a class-action lawsuit over DVD captioning (not a great settlement, but much better than nothing), and even Apple has been making accessibility improvements—apparently to avoid lawsuits from blind groups and governments.

It’s time to try something that works

Voluntary online captioning has not worked and will not work. The only way to put more captioning online is to require it. And the captioning has to be done according to standards developed in the open, not by the same industry that never gave us much captioning in the first place.

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