Captions – By Law or By Court Ruling?

YouTube Caption Example of a ViodiTV Video - Speech to Text conversion - not quite ready for prime time

Could a lawsuit in California trigger increased regulation of Internet-delivered video or is this just a pointer as to where things are going with online video?  The San Jose Mercury News reported in its 6/15 edition that a Berkeley, CA-based non-profit, Disability Rights Advocates, is suing Time-Warner for failing to caption the streaming video from its flagship online news service, CNN.com.

Unlike franchised cable services, providers of video over the Internet have not had to follow FCC rules for closed captioning.  Instead of the FCC’s rules, the Mercury News reports that California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act is the basis for the lawsuit by DRA on behalf of its 3 plaintiffs.

Independent of this lawsuit, the FCC is in the process of implementing the `Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010‘, signed by President Obama last October.  This law provides a legal basis for addressing closed captioning as well as  emergency alerts on Internet-delivered video content.

The process for implementing the closed captioning portion of the law will not occur overnight, as the FCC-appointed committee (the Video Programming And Emergency Access Advisory Committee) has 18 months to determine final recommendations for procedures, protocols, technical specifications and regulations.  At that point, the normal FCC process would kick in, which with NPRMs (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) and comment periods, it will not be at least 2013 until there are rules and it could be several years after that before they take effect.

The committee comprises of 45 people, including those who represent interests of persons with disabilities, closed captioning and video description providers, device manufacturers, Internet and software companies; broadcasters and video programming distributors and providers.

There are many questions that need to be addressed by the committee, such as.

  • An individual who uploads video is exempted from captioning requirements. What about the individual who posts a video that goes viral and then makes money from it (e.g. with online ads or inline ads)?  Will that person no longer be given an exemption?
  • What about the small business which only sells B2B and has only a few hundred hits?  Will they have to comply with the law, given the specialized nature of their video?
  • What are the costs and returns for the different approaches to implement the law?

To this last point, technology is changing every day, so the committee has a challenging task to provide recommendations that guide and not hinder.  With content identification technologies being commercialized for other applications, there may be a strong enough economic incentive to deploy this type of technology based on market forces (the Mercury reports 36 million people have partial hearing loss and 1 million are functionally deaf).  Granted, as shown with the above image, speech to text technology isn’t quite ready for prime time today, but by mid-decade things could be different.

It will be interesting to see if the FCC’s actions, along with what is happening in the market, will influence the California court as to how it proceeds with the case brought by the DRA.