European policymakers are about to finalize negotiations on the Digital Services Act (DSA), which aims to ensure a safe online environment for consumers and strengthen their rights. But if the final text does not ensure accessibility of digital services, the DSA will provide a lower level of protection for the rights of consumers with disabilities to those without disabilities.
Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Digital services such as social media platforms, search engines, app stores, and online marketplaces are essential services for digital participation, accessing and sharing information and creative content, working, traveling, studying, and enjoying leisure. While most people take these services for granted, persons with disabilities in the EU are denied equal access to them, due to the lack of accessibility to many digital services.
Now that the European Parliament and Council are about to close a deal on the landmark EU law for regulating digital services and empowering consumers, European policymakers have a unique opportunity to live up to their commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), and ensure equal access and equal level of consumer protection to the 100 million persons with disabilities in the EU.
In recent months, the European Parliament has managed to considerably strengthen the European Commission’s initial draft of the DSA, incorporating important consumer protection provisions, including ensuring accessibility of online platforms for persons with disabilities with article 19 a (new). While limited to online platforms, the Parliament’s position makes a crucial reference to Directive (EU) 2019/882, otherwise known as the European Accessibility Act (hereafter, the Act), the state-of-the-art EU legislation on the accessibility of mainstream services and products. This reference is key for ensuring legal coherence and clarity as to what the DSA means by setting accessibility obligations for providers of digital services. Thus, it will ensure that once the DSA is in force industry stakeholders will know what is required of them and how to implement it, given the level of detail on accessibility requirements in the Act and the forthcoming harmonized standards which will provide technical guidance on ensuring compliance with EU accessibility law. Policymakers should ensure that clear reference to the Act is therefore made in the final text.
Online platforms are of course not the only services which are important for our digitalized lives. Other digital services, such as search engines, are an inseparable part of the digital toolbox we all use on daily basis. All persons with disabilities should be able to have equal access to them and use them without barriers. So, policymakers should also expand the scope of article 19 a (new) in the final legal text.
It is important to acknowledge that accessibility is not only vital in terms of ensuring the right to equal access to technologies by persons with disabilities. The implications of accessibility, or lack of thereof, extend to other rights and safeguards that the DSA aims to provide to consumers. Such rights include the right to data protection and online privacy, freedom from illegal content such as online hate speech, protection of consumers against unwanted advertising, and illegal goods, empowering consumers over what they see on social media, and giving them more choice between different services. If the accessibility of digital services is not ensured, people with disabilities will not be able to take advantage of all the protections. Due to a lack of accessible feedback mechanisms, women with disabilities will not be able to report online harassment. If privacy and recommender settings are not accessible, persons with disabilities cannot control their personal data (including sensitive health data) and what is being fed to them by social media algorithms. If some services are accessible but others are not, consumers with disabilities will inevitably be locked into the service which is accessible for them, thus lacking the same diversity of choice granted to consumers without disabilities.
“People with disabilities have the right to equal access to digital technologies, and they should be given the same level of protection of their digital rights as all other consumers. If EU policymakers do not ensure strong and clear accessibility requirements for online platforms and other digital services, they will create a further digital gap between those benefiting from new technologies and those denied access to them. Such an insufficient level of protection for persons with disabilities by the EU would be a direct violation of its obligations under the UN CRPD. It would simply be unacceptable to the 100 million persons with disabilities in the EU!” – Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum (EDF).