FCC moves to caption the Web

The Federal Communications Commission is taking another step to make the Internet more accessible, voting next month on rules for closed captioning online video clips.

The vote, planned for the FCC’s July meeting, is the result of a years-long push — and Chairman Tom Wheeler's personal interest — to increase accessibility online. 

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But the companies that would have to do the legwork to get the closed captions on online videos are warning the FCC to avoid unreasonable technological demands and timelines.

Accessibility concerns, especially for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, have been a prominent issue for Wheeler since being sworn in as chairman late last year.

Earlier this year, the FCC moved forward with requirements that will allow users to send text messages to emergency services. Those requirements are aimed at helping, among others, the deaf and hard-of-hearing who are unable to make voice 911 calls.

At the vote’s conclusion, Wheeler pledged — signing along in American sign language — that text-to-911 would be just one of his efforts as chairman to help the deaf and hearing impaired community.

“Finally, to my hearing impaired friends, I just want to say one thing: This is only the start,” he said.

According to an agency spokeswoman, Wheeler learned American Sign Language over weekly lunches with a deaf employee in his past life as a software company CEO.

After months of dealing with more controversial issues at the agency — including rewriting its net neutrality rules and next year’s highly-anticipated airwave auction — Wheeler has put on the July agenda a vote on rules to increase closed captioning for online videos.

In early 2012, the FCC set rules for closed captioning online full-length programming that had aired on TV with captions, following orders from a 2010 law that set accessibility requirements for online video.

At that time, the Commission left clips of television content untouched, unless the clips cover a majority of the full-length program.

The FCC will vote next month on whether its rules for full-length content should apply to all clips of video that aired on TV with captions.

As outlined in the law and the original rules, the measure being voted on in July will only apply to online clips of video programming that aired on television with closed captions, but Wheeler has bigger aspirations.

“Accessibility of programming must evolve with technology in order for us to maintain our commitment to universal access,” he said in a statement.

“Those who hear with their eyes should not be disadvantaged in their ability to access video information on the Internet.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) — the House sponsor of the 2010 Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Act — praised the FCC’s movement on video clips.

“I hope the FCC seizes this opportunity to reverse its prior decision and ensure that millions of Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing are not shut out from important online programming,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

But technology and television companies are warning the FCC to be aware of technological limitations and proceed cautiously as it moves forward with the closed captioning rules.

Many industry groups are asking the FCC to limit which clips must be captioned and allow lag time between when the video is first posted and when the captions are added, especially for timely videos such as breaking news or sporting events.

The Digital Media Association — which represents Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and YouTube — warned that putting captions on video clips is not as simple as it may seem.

“The time and cost of enabling captions is not substantially less for a 2-minute clip than for a 2-hour full-length movie,” the group said.

In its filing, the Walt Disney Company — which owns ABC and ESPN — outlined the success it has had with getting captions on video clips within 24 hours of the clip going online but warned that success shouldn’t become the regulatory standard.

“It is very hard to draw broad conclusions about whether such a time frame is feasible for the much-higher volume of captioning that would be involved if the FCC adopts a broad online clip captioning requirement.”

The companies — including Hulu — warned that potential technological burdens imposed by the FCC could keep companies from posting clips online.

“Many content owners may decide that the costs of compliance outweigh their revenues from clips and consequently would pull or hold back some or all of their clips from Hulu,” the company said.

The National Association of Broadcasters is urging the FCC to “adopt sensible timeframes that give all parties involved the ability to comply with closed captioning requirements,” Zamir Ahmed, manager of media relations at the broadcast industry group, said in a statement.

“The FCC must shy away from unreasonable demands that would have adverse consequences for viewers by forcing video clips off the Internet.”

At the same time, the agency is facing pressure to act quickly on the issue.

In a filing earlier this year, Public Citizen pushed the FCC to expand captioning requirements to online video clips.

“The widespread lack of captioning on [online] video programming disadvantages and marginalizes deaf and hard of hearing people,” the group wrote in its filing.

The law “and the rights of hearing impaired people demand that this problem be fixed,” the group said.