Friday, June 28, 2013

Benetech Closing Statement on the Marrakech Treaty

To the Diplomatic Conference in Plenary on 
June 27, 2013

On the Adoption of the Treaty of Marrakech

This is an excellent Treaty. The Benetech team is delighted by its adoption today. We have the technology, we have the content, and now we have the legal framework to make it possible for every person with a print disability on the planet to get access to the books they need for education, employment and social inclusion!

At Benetech, we like to think of ourselves as part of Silicon Valley’s heart. We are a high tech organization that is not organized as a for-profit company, but instead as a nonprofit charitable corporation working to ensure technology serves all of humanity. Our goal is not to make money for private interests, but instead to use technology to maximize social good.

For years, we have been working to end the worldwide book famine. This Treaty provides a tremendous tool to accelerate that work. It is our hope that Benetech’s Bookshare library, the authorized entity which we believe has the world’s largest accessible online collection with its 198,000 titles, becomes a major source of books for all people who are blind or otherwise print disabled. Thanks to strong support from publishers and authors, one third of the Bookshare collection, over 60,000 titles, is already available today in every country in the world. In many countries, over 90,000 titles are available.

We want to do everything we can to support the communities of people with disabilities, and the organizations that serve them, to end the book famine in each country. That support includes the sharing of best practices in accessible book production, model agreements for readers with disabilities, and open source access technology for reading the books. In addition, Benetech is happy to provide hosting technology for new, and existing, authorized entities who would like to take advantage of the generous resources the United States government invests in our Bookshare library. We believe it’s possible to build on top of this asset without recreating it. That is the miracle of a robust website: it doesn’t cost much more for it to serve twice, or even ten times, as many people.

Today, I want to call on national governments, the international development organizations funded by governments and donor foundations, to invest in the capacity of authorized entities in each country. We are certain that the investment of access for persons with print disabilities is one of the best investments in terms of returns to society!

I also want to call on national governments to connect their schools, their disabled persons organizations, their libraries and their agencies that serve people with disabilities, with our Bookshare library and all other libraries that share our strong interest in international cooperation.

Finally, I want to make an offer to each country delegation here in Marrakech: for the next year, my organization will offer free library cards to our Bookshare library to any five qualified Beneficiary Persons in your country, for direct distribution from Bookshare to them. We think that you would like to see what’s already possible in your country today in terms of international sharing, and what might be possible in terms of domestic production of accessible books.

Together, we hope to join with the countries of the world, the publishing industry, the World Blind Union and its national affiliates, our peer authorized entities—as well as people with print disabilities themselves—to end the book famine. Together, we can provide equal access to humankind’s knowledge.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Technological Protection Measures and the Blind

Why Circumvention for the Purposes of Access is Crucial 

A Bookshare Briefing Paper Prepared for the Diplomatic Conference for Visually Impaired Persons

The distributors of digital content often use technological protection measures (TPMs) to discourage the making of unauthorized copies. Unfortunately, these TPMs create collateral damage in the form of disabling or hindering activities that are generally permitted. This is especially acute for accessibility for the blind and disabled, where the TPMs cannot technically distinguish between accessing the content for the making of an illegal copy, or accessing the content to speak it aloud with a synthetic voice or to create a Braille version. This has created the ironic situation where blind people, who because of their disability require access to digital copies, have been effectively locked out of purchasing ebooks for the last decade. Each new content delivery system is eagerly tested by technically oriented blind individuals or the organizations serving them, often to result in disappointment and widespread advice to avoid wasting limited resources on inaccessible content. 

TPMs and Accessibility Challenges 

Here is a short list of the challenges that arise in the interaction between TPMs and accessing digital content:
  1. The digital textual content is presented as an image. In many cases textual content is not delivered as text, but as a digital image of a page of text. This happens frequently with PDFs that are created from page scans. 
  2. The digital textual content is presented as text, but the TPM blocks a screen reader from accessing the text to speak it aloud, or transmitting it to a digital Braille display. 
  3. The digital content is presented as text, but the built-in read-aloud capability is disabled because of ambiguity over audio rights. 
  4. The digital content can be accessed with a read-aloud function, but the read-aloud function is unusable for equal access. Common problems are the inability to go back, pause, spell words (or names) or access footnotes (or be forced to hear all footnotes). 
  5. The digital text can be accessed, but there is impaired access to the structure of the document. It’s allowed in many formats to present the text not in logical reading order, but completely out of order with instructions to the device on how to make the content “look” on the page. 
  6. The digital content can be accessed only on a certain kind of device, and the consumer with the disability doesn’t have that device. [Added by a suggestion from George Kerscher: Similarly, the consumer has a device they have learned to use effectively, but the desired content cannot be moved or used on that device.]  
  7. The content contains images mixed in with the text, and the image content is crucial to using the text. Classic example is a math textbook, where the math equations and diagrams are all presented as images in digital textbooks. So, the student might be able to read only 60% of the relevant content, and have no idea about what the equations say. 
Authorized entities need access to digital content in order to cost-effectively deliver access. The traditional access methods typically involve recreating the content through retyping it, or scanning in the print book and using optical character recognition to obtain the text from the book (typically all graphics are dropped in this process). Since almost all content for the last decade originates as a digital file, using OCR on the scanned page or the PDF image document is a painful reverse engineering process that delivers lower quality access at much greater cost than native full access.

Textbooks in IDEA, the United States K-12 special education law 

The issue of TPMs is the biggest future-proofing question in the Treaty. In some markets, printed books are receding into the past. Amazon now ships more ebooks than print books in the United States. Access to printed books without handling ebooks would be a pyrrhic victory for people with disabilities. This is already apparent in IDEA 2004, the most recent reauthorization of national special education law. A key policy innovation was required all publishers to deliver accessible digital versions of K-12 textbooks that were printed. However, this requirement does not apply to digital-only versions of textbooks, which are already starting to appear. And of course, these digital-only textbooks are being delivered with TPMs that hinder access.

Use of TPMs by Authorized Entities 

The use of TPMs by authorized entities has been presented as somehow invalidating their concerns about TPMs, but this conclusion is logically flawed. Authorized entities are not advocates for the making of illegal copies, or the outlawing of TPMs, or wishing that all information were free. Authorized entities are against TPMs to the extent that they interfere with accessibility. Authorized entities use TPMs for the same reasons as commercial distributors of content: to discourage the making of illegal copies, or to prevent legal copies from reaching unauthorized users. Since authorized entities have a strong obligation to exclusively distribute accessible copies to qualifying people with disabilities, it should come as no surprise that they implement TPMs as part of delivering on that obligation. Authorized entities use both “hard” TPMs such as digital locks that only work with authorized players (i.e., NLS in the U.S.), as well as “soft” TPMs such as fingerprinting (i.e., Bookshare). Authorized entities are, not surprisingly, generally fine with circumvention of their TPMs for the purpose of better accessibility, and are against circumvention of their TPMs for the purpose of making illegal copies (say, for the purposes of distributing their content to people without disabilities). Two examples of this are:
  • Bookshare permits the stripping of fingerprints out of its digital books when used to create master documents for Braille production. Bookshare digital files contain the name of the person or organization that downloaded the digital file, but Bookshare permits Braille production facilities to strip this TPM information out when delivering hardcopy Braille books. Hardcopy Braille is difficult to “pirate,” whereas digital versions can be more easily used to make unauthorized copies. 
  • Authorized entities that distribute audio books often need to remove the TPMs from one flavor of audio book from a different authorized entity, so that they can repackage and distribute that audio book in a different protected audio format that works with the players used by the patrons. 
In both cases, it’s about circumvention for accessibility, not circumvention for breaking the law.


TPMs are blunt and frequently stupid instruments. Many digital content providers have dropped or softened TPMs because they irritate the typical consumer. And these irritations pale next to the denial of access for people with disabilities. The interest of consumers with disabilities and the organizations are best served by the ability to circumvent TPMs to the extent necessary to realize equal access.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Benetech's Statement to the Treaty Delegates in Marrakech

Benetech, my nonprofit organization operates Bookshare, the largest online library dedicated to serving blind and print disabled people. We have 197,000 books available in the United States today, and serve 250,000 people, mainly in the United States, but also in 40 other countries. Our library is made possible both by a domestic copyright exception that makes it possible for us to add any book requested by a blind person to our library, as well as strong cooperation with publishers who provide many of their books directly to our library for free, including the rights to serve people in certain other countries.

Our library is unusual, in that our charter is to serve all people with print disabilities of the world, not just those in our country. Our focus is on carefully vetting each person as having a qualified print disability through working with trustworthy institutions in our own and other countries, and then letting qualified users loose in a library without limits! And, just like libraries for sighted people, our books are available to our patrons even if they could purchase them. It wouldn’t be a library if most of the books on the shelves had little signs saying buy it, don’t borrow it!

At the core of our library is the electronic book, which can be easily converted into accessible formats for the blind, on computers, tablets, smartphones, electronic braille displays and simple phones and MP3 players, through Braille embossers and presses that create physical Braille books, and through creating large print. We seek to work with whatever device is in the possession of every disabled person, whatever is in their pocket or bag. The digital nature of our work makes it cost effective to serve many people without spending a royal treasury. We provide library services in rich countries for US$75 per year per person. In the developing world, we charge roughly US$10 per year, subsidizing this cost in solidarity. Our individual users get to choose their books directly online or in a smartphone application, and they typically read 10 books per year. That’s one dollar per book in the developing world. As you devise the treaty, please realize that any procedures that needlessly add costs to the inexpensive provision of accessible books will effectively result in denial of access. We don’t want procedures that make providing a book in a developing country to be more expensive than in our home country!

I have asked the Secretariat to arrange a time for delegates to come and see a demonstration of the current state of technology for a library for the blind: how the users download the books, and how they talk. That session is tentatively planned for Friday at 2 pm, in the same room where the publishers presented today during the lunch break.

We have the technology today to end the book famine: we need your treaty to make it real! We look forward to a simple, straightforward and usable treaty that makes it possible for American blind people to have access to the cultural richness of all other languages and countries and for us to serve all of our hundreds of thousands of books to the blind of the world. Help us see that people with disabilities get the access they need for education, employment and full social inclusion!

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Gaming for Sustainability: How Balaji Prabhakar’s Lottery Beats Traffic Congestion

Imagine someone offered you $1 to leave the house an hour earlier in the morning so as to shift your commute to an off-peak train. Will you do it? If you’re like most people, you will say no. Now imagine you’d be offered a 1-in-100 chance of winning $100. You might find this offer much more enticing. You may even end up gladly altering your commuting habit. This might seem rather obvious when you consider the behavioral-economics insight that the average person is risk-seeking when stakes are small. But how ingenious it is to apply this insight to reduce congestion-related costs (fuel, pollution, time) and, ultimately, congestion itself in urban areas with some of the world’s worst daily traffic jams!

INSINC poster at Singapore's train stations
I love bright ideas that in hindsight seem self-evident and make you wonder why no one thought of them sooner. Such a bright idea is Balaji Prabhakar’s Incentives for Singapore’s Commuters (INSINC) study that aims to reduce traffic congestion in the city-state of Singapore. Balaji, a Stanford Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (and well-known to my buddies at Cisco as a computer networking expert), is becoming a global traffic guru. I greatly enjoyed meeting him and was fascinated to learn about his work on topics ranging from the nature of traffic congestion to social structures to the psychology of incentives.

I was especially intrigued by the ways in which Balaji applies principles, architectures and algorithms from computer networks to fundamentally redesign Societal Networks. Societal Networks are networks that are vital for a society's functioning. They include transportation networks, waste management systems, energy networks and health-care systems. Balaji’s current major focus is on transportation networks, and he’s making strides in redesigning them to be more scalable and efficient.

In January 2012, Balaji launched INSINC jointly with the National University of Singapore and with support by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA). Using a cleverly playful scheme, the joint study experiments with reducing overall traffic congestion and with better managing crowdedness on Singapore’s rail system by incentivizing commuters to shift some of the peak travel demand to off-peak periods. INSINC allows commuters to earn credits proportional to the distance they travel on the rail system, with extra credits rewarded for off-peak journeys. But studies have shown that, while incentives can generate positive behavior, guaranteed small rewards don’t generate significant behavior changes and, accordingly, that guaranteed rebates are too low amounts to convince people to alter their commuting habits. Many commuters don’t even notice they’re paying less for their train rides. They will, however, be far more inclined to take “decongestion” trips during off-peak hours and, in the long run, change their commuting habits if they stand a chance to win larger prizes.

Balaji’s INSINC idea draws on this risk-seeking effect from behavioral economics. Participants can exchange their off-peak commute credits for chances to win up to $100 by playing a game on the INSINC website, and the prizes are then credited to their transportation card every month. Moreover, Balaji’s work shows that this risk-seeking effect is amplified in small networks: regularly hearing about other winners leads individuals to overestimate their own chances of success. The scheme’s lure therefore strengthens when participants go online to compare their results with those of friends and colleagues. This already worked particularly well in Bangalore, where Balaji ran a pilot project in collaboration with the Indian software company Infosys Technologies. That scheme, in which winners were advertised through Infosys, doubled the number of off-peak commuters to the company’s main research site, significantly reducing congestion on the Infosys peak-time buses (and I assume lessening the overall time spent by their employees on buses). INSINC aims to create a social network among commuters to produce a similar effect. The success of the Bangalore study has also led to a similar program that Balaji is running at Stanford University.

Visual of updated INSINC game board
In a recent press release, the LTA reports that INSINC is proving to be highly successful. Since its launch, more than 40,000 commuters have signed up for the program and more than $320,000 has been paid out to participants. The number of participants is growing and surged since last June, when the LTA announced that the study would be extended and enhanced. As of November 2012, more credits per off-peak train journeys are given, with the maximum cash prize doubling from $100 to $200. The refreshed INSINC website also has new game boards. The LTA says it hopes the study can eventually cover up to 60,000 commuters.

Businesses and policymakers are becoming increasingly aware that psychology plays a central role in the long journey towards a sustainable future, because a key aspect of sustainability is widespread behavior change. The beauty about Balaji’s random payoff scheme is that it generates behavior change in a way that’s both engaging and cost-effective. It not only maximizes small amounts of money, but also redesigns transportation networks to be “smarter” without the need to reengineer them, drawing on the insight that it takes many people to cause congestion, but a surprisingly small number to reduce it. As Balaji says,
“congestion is an 80-20 type of problem. In other words, if you get rid of 20 percent of the load, then the congestion measures will drop down potentially 80 percent. The question is: Which 20 percent is going to yield the road at the peak time? Somebody may value time more and somebody may value money more, and there’s a trade that’s set up.”
Blending technology, economics, and policy, Balaji hit upon a bright idea that establishes the right tradeoff to create the desired 80-20 effect. If it proves successful at city-scale, this approach may well be applicable to other large societal problems of the 21st century, such as energy consumption, water conservation, health and wellness.