The Struggle for Book Access: Amazon (Blog Post #2)

Why You Shouldn't Depend on a For-Profit Business to Defend Your Civil Rights

The Kindle2 is a hot topic in the disability field right now. Many print-disabled people (people who are blind, severely dyslexic or a have a physical disability that keeps them from reading regular print books) see electronic books as a dream come true. But, it's a dream that the commercial ebook vendors keep dashing. The Kindle2's text-to-speech feature wasn't something that actually worked for blind people, but you could imagine how a software update could make this into an incredible product. But, we just saw Amazon fold when the Authors Guild pushed them to turn off the voice of these books: Amazon to flip on Kindle. And that is setting back the cause of people with disabilities who need that kind of access. We have an action by Amazon that sets back years of work to make ebooks accessible.

Print-disabled people of the world shouldn't be surprised that Amazon isn't going out of its way to help them. Amazon is a business, and is very focused on doing business on behalf of its shareholders. Amazon has repeatedly let down people with disabilities. They will continue until it's in their business interests to change. Change will happen when the organized blind sue Amazon or Amazon's partners, if they calculate that the cost of complying will be less than the cost of not complying.

A recent example of this was web site accessibility. Recently Target settled out of court with the National Federation of the Blind about its accessible website after Target suffered a couple of reverses in the court case against them. Amazon is the company that built Target's website. So, right after the Target settlement, Amazon made a deal with the NFB to improve the accessibility of the Amazon website.

Note that I'm not dinging the publishers here. I've found the publishing industry (and Google for that matter) to be willing to do socially responsible things voluntarily, because it's the right thing. We just announced that a major publishing group (Hachette) has voluntarily decided to help Bookshare deliver high-quality versions of their books to people with disabilities. Many other authors and publishers have done the same thing out of the goodness of their hearts, frankly. I think the publishing industry has a long and proud history of being willing to help people with disabilities, and authors are equally willing to support this as well.

Roy Blount Jr. in his New York Times essay Kindle Swindle? pointed out that the authors have long supported disability access. Unfortunately, when they turn it off on the Kindle, they are turning it off for everybody including people with disabilities.

There's so much to talk about here with Amazon, so let me focus on just a few key points:
  1. The Closed Platform problem.
  2. The Textbook problem.
  3. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act ("DMCA") workaround.
1. The Closed Platform problem.

There are many consequences from Amazon's closed Kindle architecture. The inability to support innovation is high on that list. If Kindle ebooks were available on the Web, other developers could fix many of its limitations such as lousy support for images, problems with complex layouts, inaccessibility. Tim O'Reilly covered this perspective in an excellent essay for Forbes Why Kindle Should Be An Open Book. [Side note: I love this title! In the 1990s Benetech was the leading provider of reading systems to blind people and our product was actually named "An Open Book."]

And of course, we have the dystopian vision from Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement, in his short story from the 90s, The Right to Read. Stallman outlines the long term implications of surrendering the freedom we have today with books: the freedom to read without being tracked or to lend a book to a friend.

I am a book lover, and have many books on my shelves. If I live another 50 years, those books will still be there, free to be given to my kids, given to friends, or sold to pay off my debts! I also have a Kindle1, and have bought a bunch of Kindle ebooks. I have none of those freedoms with my Kindle ebooks, and does anyone believe that my Kindle will still be working in 50 years (and will Amazon still be around with a successor product)?

But, for people with print disabilities, the Kindle remains a closed book. I've seen a couple of low vision people who are able to use it, but it's useless for most visually impaired people and has none of the access features desired by people with dyslexia.

2. The Textbook problem.
Although the Kindle right now is not a good choice for delivering textbooks, it's so clear that it has great potential. If you've had kids lugging backpacks with 20 or more pounds of textbooks, the idea of having an 8 oz. ebook reader with all the books they need for the year is pretty tempting. But, the lousy quality of accessibility of the Kindle presents a civil rights problem: schools can't adopt Kindles and lock out their disabled students.

And, somebody other than Amazon will suffer the legal consequences. The advocates will sue the schools for choosing Kindle textbooks and violating the civil rights of disabled students.

3. The DMCA workaround.

Thanks to lobbying from the American Foundation for the Blind and others, it's actually legal under the laws of the U.S. to crack a device like the Kindle to make its books accessible. George Kerscher and I laid the foundation for this with our essay The Soundproof Book. It's highly ironic that under the hood of the Kindle is a highly accessible ebook that could be terrific for disability access. The DMCA makes reverse engineering digital rights management generally illegal with a handful of very narrow exemptions.

The goal of the DMCA disability exemption wasn't to breed a whole generation of blind ebook crackers: it was to say it was against public policy in the United States to have digital rights management that stopped disabled people from reading ebooks. Unfortunately, Amazon (and others) haven't really got the message and keep creating more inaccessible ebook products.


Amazon has known about these problems for years, but they have calculated (correctly so far) that this isn't something they need to do something about. But, I'm pretty sure that things are going to change. Amazon's old friends at the National Federation of the Blind will be watching carefully for the negative impacts of the Kindle's inaccessibility on their community, especially students. The disability community usually doesn't sue first and ask questions later: companies usually get a fair amount of time to respond to these concerns. For example, when Google went from being very accessible to starting to release inaccessible features of new products, numerous people mentioned it to them and within a year Google was obviously fixing the problems.

Electronic books have gone ten years generally ignoring the audience that most desperately needs their product: people with print disabilities. Most of this community would happily pay for their books. I know that K-12 schools would far rather buy an accessible $60 textbook than spend $300-600 paying a teacher to scan and proofread it!

The days of ignoring the problem will be coming to an end. The right solution is universal design: that ebooks are accessible to all and at a fair price. Authors, publishers and technology vendors should make more money that way, and people with disabilities won't be caught in the crossfire. Hopefully, this approach will be adopted sooner so that all people have the right to read!


Unknown said…
I didn't see a reference to a great philanthropist among publishers, who both chose against DRM *and* chose to open their entire electronic catalog to people with print disabilities: Baen Books.

My wife is totally blind and enjoys access to every etext that Baen has.
Jim Fruchterman said…
Want to second your plug for Baen books. They have permitted Bookshare to convert their files to our formats, distribute them to print disabled people globally. They're great!
The Author's Guild needs to do the right thing here. They really don't have a case limiting text to speech on the Kindle. Books purchased on the Kindle are already quite restricted regarding transfers to other readers, it's a question of accessibility for the visually impaired. In my Review of the Kindle 2 on, The Amazon Kindle 2 as a Low Vision Device for the Visually Impaired, I talk about how the Kindle holds great promise for the visually impaired. Its text to speech function is very important. The ability to increase the font size is great, however for some listening to their favorite, new bestseller is the only way for them to truly enjoy "reading". I don't see it as a case of the Author's Guild losing money, they are afraid of setting a precedence. Sufficient author protections are already in place, they need to lift their opposition.
Jeremy said…
a little update to this story. This is not just going to go away.

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