University Puts 20,000 Lectures Behind A Registration Wall In Response To DOJ Pressure On Website Accessibility Compliance

from the nobody-wins dept

Back in 2012, a federal court ruled US websites were “places of public accommodation.” The ruling (overturned on appeal) came in a lawsuit brought against Netflix by the National Association of the Deaf. It seems like an obvious conclusion — more people get their information, news, and entertainment from the web than other sources. But the ruling had plenty of adverse consequences, especially for smaller, less profitable purveyors of online content.

Professor Eric Goldman — who analyzes a ton of internet-related lawsuits — had this to say at the time:

If websites must comply with the ADA, all hell will break loose. Could YouTube be obligated to close-caption videos on the site? (This case seems to leave that door open.) Could every website using Flash have to redesign their sites for browsers that read the screen? I’m not creative enough to think of all the implications, but I can assure you that ADA plaintiffs’ lawyers will have a long checklist of items worth suing over. Big companies may be able to afford the compliance and litigation costs, but the entry costs for new market participants could easily reach prohibitive levels.

The payoff of this lawsuit — along with the federal government’s requirements for making websites “accessible” — is finally here. A California university is placing 20,000 audio and video lectures behind a registration wall, making them less accessible to everybody, rather than risk being sued for not making them “accessible” to those with disabilities.

The University of California, Berkeley, will cut off public access to tens of thousands of video lectures and podcasts in response to a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities.

Today, the content is available to the public on YouTube, iTunes U and the university’s webcast.berkeley site. On March 15, the university will begin removing the more than 20,000 audio and video files from those platforms — a process that will take three to five months — and require users sign in with University of California credentials to view or listen to them.

This move has more to do with the DOJ’s ADA* accessibility stance, although that stance roughly aligns with the court’s 2012 findings. The DOJ is named specifically in the university’s statements as being the impetus for it locking up its past content. Future releases will be issued with an eye on compliance, but past lectures are gone for good unless you happen to have the right credentials to view them.

*[This acutally stems from the FCC, not the ADA. Nate Hoffelder has more details in the comments. UPDATE: never mind.]

Then there’s this part of the university’s statement, which hints it may not all be related to accessibility-compliance.

Finally, moving our content behind authentication allows us to better protect instructor intellectual property from ‘pirates’ who have reused content for personal profit without consent.

I’m not sure how much of a problem Berkeley has had with content piracy. This statement could mean it’s rampant or could simply mean it’s something the university’s lawyers have mentioned in passing as a concern. Either way, the move is related to control. What the public can’t see, it can’t complain about. And that keeps the DOJ at bay, even if it does little for the general public.

However, the piracy part of the statement might become relevant in the near future. It also shows the university’s spokesperson isn’t aware most of the lectures can’t be “pirated.” has already mirrored the 20,000 files due for removal, and it notes its move is compliant with the terms governing the sharing and distribution of the recorded lectures.

The vast majority of the lectures are licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows attributed, non-commercial redistribution. The price for this content has been set to free and all LBRY metadata attributes it to UC Berkeley.

The university may have a point about “personal profit,” but simply hosting lectures at a site that sells stuff or makes money from ads isn’t the same thing as “reusing content for personal profit.” And the license the university uses doesn’t require permission beforehand.

In the end, what we have is another regulation failure, where best laid plans become self-sabotaging debacles. Attempting to make the web universally-usable is an impossibility. No one’s going out of their way to cut the deaf or blind out of the international conversation, but demanding all US sites be compliant with the DOJ’s requirements is like demanding all books be made available in Braille and audio format. It’s something only a few publishers can afford to do. Even fewer can afford to engage in a legal battle with the federal government over a lack of compliance, which means increased enforcement efforts will only result in less available content. That does nothing to level the playing field for Americans with disabilities.

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Comments on “University Puts 20,000 Lectures Behind A Registration Wall In Response To DOJ Pressure On Website Accessibility Compliance”

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christenson says:

Project Gutenberg!

Seems to me there would be plenty of people willing to put some time into making these videos more accessible…as a way to study and learn the content.

That could be organized like Project Gutenberg…breaking up the project into manageable pieces and farming them out to the crowd.

And Mike hasn’t even BEGUN to have his field day as to whether these videos should have copyright at all, or piracy should be possible…seeing as how they are made by our government!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Project Gutenberg!

You misunderstand that point. We ALL know that these videos have been copied by multiple people and so anyone fretting about seeing them remove entirely from the Internet is worried about something that isn’t going to happen.

We’re talking about crowdsourced efforts to provide transcriptions of them…and those efforts are already underway as well, although quite some distance from being completed.

Anonymous Coward says:


No one’s going out of their way to cut the deaf or blind out of the international conversation

While site authors may not be going out of their way with malice aforethought to exclude these groups, I have definitely run into sites that went out of their way to present their content in a manner that is hostile to deaf/blind consumers, when the content could have been more readily made available in an accessible format. Many sites use obnoxious page designs that unnecessarily confuse screen readers. I’m also looking at the places that insist on presenting curated interviews (of subject matter experts, interviewed in a nice controlled environment — not your man-on-the-street interviews or breaking-news reporting) only as a non-close-captioned video file (often requiring Flash), instead of a simple text transcript of the interview. The latter would be screen-reader friendly, making it blind-accessible; it would be deaf-friendly (as well as friendly to people who want to consume it in libraries or places with high background noise). It would be more accessible to people on limited bandwidth connections (text being smaller than video). It would be more accessible to people who get interrupted and need to come back later (browser history/bookmarks cannot remember video position, but they do fine for text pages). Instead, if you cannot view it in a quiet place and listen to it at their rate, you cannot consume it at all. That definitely excludes people, some (but not all) of whom have sensory disabilities. It may not be done with malice, but it is done, and is very frustrating for those needlessly excluded.

Lipto (profile) says:

Re: Re: Exclusion

Transcription and closed captioning can be had commercially for around $3/minute.

If there is a transcript (or script) synchronizing can be done almost automatically by youtube, 4play, and others.

Subtitle Edit (free) can be a great help.

Who pays? Usually the production company, who passes the cost along to the end user.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Exclusion

As of July 2015, Youtube saw an upload of 400 hours of video per minute.

Assume that that rate hasn’t risen since then.

Assume YT is able to get a ‘bulk rate discount’, and only pays $2 per minute.

Assume that only half of videos uploaded have content such that they need closed captioning.

It would cost $24,000 per minute to provide transcription and closed captioning for YT videos at that rate.

While I can certainly understand how frustrating it can be for people that can’t watch/listen like others can, and need that extra work put forth to be able to enjoy content the same as others, it simply isn’t viable to require such at large scale, and if services like YT had to do so they’d be shut down within a day.

As for the possible response of ‘Well just make the users pay then, spread out the costs’, if people had to worry about submitting their videos for transcription and closed captioning, and pay rates like that, I think it’s safe to say that the majority simply wouldn’t bother, which would likewise kill any service like YT.

Toestubber (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Exclusion

It also ignores the entire concept of free. If no one pays for human transcriptions, should media be illegal to offer at no cost to the public?

As it stands now, the ADA is the Harrison Bergeron of federal regulations. There’s a good reason why trolls like Prenda have so eagerly glommed on to its "enforcement."

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Exclusion

If people volunteer to transcribe it’d help, but aren’t there programs available to do that already?

I appreciate that it may not be cost-effective to make books available in Braille if there’s not much demand for them (circular, I know: how could a blind person want to read a book unless he or she knew what it was about?) but isn’t there software that could read the words aloud, or something? Imagine having a Braille printer that would print out the contents of the book after paying for a legal download.

It’s not fair, IMHO, to burden disabled people further by demanding that they pay over the odds for accessible content; there ought to be a way to meet them halfway by providing materials in formats their accessibility software can work with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Exclusion

No, that is not all that he is saying. He is saying that if you don’t do this, our government will take someone to court and either fine them or put them in jail. A court will take money away from them. All with the full weight of the government and potentially using force up to and including death.

That is what he is saying.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Exclusion

Who enforces laws? Police, no? If you don’t comply with laws, what happens to you? Who comes to visit you.

The government enforces its laws by any means possible, up to and including death.

Disobey a judges order? Be held in contempt and kept in jail indefinitely, which is exactly what is happening to a gent in Philadelphia right now. In fact, there is an article here on that.

So yeah, really, death. That is the power of our government and the enforcement of its laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Exclusion

Absolutely correct. A MINIMAL amount of consideration for people with hearing and/or visual impairment, a MINIMAL amount of consideration for people on slow connections, a MINIMAL amount of consideration for people with older computers would go a long way.

It’s just not that hard. Every web site that I run is thoroughly tested with a text-only browser, for example, which is trivial and goes a good bit of the way toward making sure that the screen readers used by the blind can deal with it. The extra effort required is tiny — AND it helps identify problems that might otherwise escape notice, so there’s a payoff for everyone.

Good faith efforts are BADLY lacking, and one of the sad things is that some of the worst offenders are operations with the deepest pockets, who could easily do much better with what they waste on catered lunches.

Nate Hoffelder (user link) says:


This wasn’t an issue of ADA compliance because the ADA dos not cover websites.

That Netflix suit was filed to force compliance with an FCC regulation which is an entirely different creature from the ADA law passed by Congress in 1990.

Here’s more info on it:

That is a pretty broad regulation which covers everything from websites to online services to connected devices. it is in fact so broad that it even covers tablets and smartphones (hence why Android got accessibility as a standard feature).

This regulation even covers ereaders. Amazon actually had to get a waiver for the Kindle so they wouldn’t have to add accessibility features. (And then Amazon added those same features last year – go figure.)

Sanjay Nasta (user link) says:

Other institutions not planning to delete publicly available content.

Here’s an article that might add another dimension to the debate – Enabling ADA Compliance at Institutions of Higher Learning ( The article was originally published on Mealey’s (Lexis-Nexis).

Please note that other institutions aren’t going to follow Berkeley’s lead in deleting content.

Anonymous Coward says:

Youtube is not good enough. The CC there is around 80% accuracy. That does not comply with the laws in place. We are required to have 99% I believe.

The cost of doing that is not cheap. It takes someone trained at it 4 hours for every 1 hour of content. We have been looking into it and it would cost us millions to do all of our current content. In the past we have done it on request of a student who needed it. If that is no longer good enough and we have to do it on all videos we will no longer record things. We are not trying to make things more difficult for people who need the CC. We just cant’ afford it.

Comes down to money. If you want it someone has to pay for it.

Hugo S Cunningham (profile) says:

Could government portal automate accessibilty conversion?

I am not a technical expert, but, for what it is worth–

As a compromise, instead of requiring tens of millions of content providers each to reinvent the wheel on accessibility (or to degrade or suppress their offerings entirely)–

How about setting up (perhaps under the Library of Congress) an on-line portal for disabled users to access the best-practice accessible-ized version of any address on the internet, eg a video with captions automatically applied? Instead of spending money on lawfare and painfully expensive individual conversions, spend it to bring the World’s best technical talent to one project– automation of conversion to meet the needs of different disabilities.

As an example, automated subtitling is not yet ready, but putting highest priority on it is more likely to make more videos accessible to the deaf in a shorter amount of time, without antagonizing the general community.

sorrykb (profile) says:

No one’s going out of their way to cut the deaf or blind out of the international conversation, but demanding all US sites be compliant with the DOJ’s requirements is like demanding all books be made available in Braille and audio format. It’s something only a few publishers can afford to do.

You (the general you) don’t have to go out of your way to cut deaf or blind people out of the conversation. You just have to keep on doing what you always have, and the conversation will forever be exclusionary.

It’s worth noting that just about every gain in access for people with disabilities in education, public businesses, accommodation, etc (including those we all now take for granted) came about not because the free market saw a need and met it, but because lawsuits or other concerted (and usually adversarial) action made it happen.

Applying accessibility requirements to all sites may be overkill, but a state university — a public institution — should be held to the highest standard. I’d argue that this is an endeavor that merits additional (and specifically designated) federal funding. Make it a "space race", but to incentivize development of non-proprietary technology to make video — and the Web in general — more accessible.

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