November 6, 2013

Ereaders are for everybody!….with some exceptions


The purity of this perfect machine MUST NOT BE CHALLENGED. Or something.

Here’s the thing about ereaders: they are a technology that depends on their exclusive status. They’re really not for everybody, you know? It’s only the young and strong and forward-thinking that should be able to employ these slim, gleaming beacons of unlimited access to the minor works of Wilkie Collins.

Or so, at least, argue the manufacturers of ereaders, who’ve filed a petition to request that their products be exempt from a federal law that mandates that electronic devices have assistive technology so that people with print disabilities can use them.

The coalition of manufacturers, which consists of Amazon, Kobo, and Sony, are objecting to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Act of 2010 (CVAA), arguing two points: first, that their devices aren’t meant for people with disabilities anyway, and second, that the availability of reading apps make all of this unnecessary and people should just not complain and go away and leave them to make their scads of money. Or, as they put it, in their FCC filing:

— Ereaders are mobile electronic devices designed, marketed and used primarily for the purpose of reading digital documents.

— The free Kindle Reading, Sony Reader, and Kobo eReading apps, which provide access to the same range of e-publications available to the owners of the respective companies’ ereaders (and in some cases a greater range), are available for free on an array of mobile phones, tablets, PCs, and Macs.

The FCC filing actually makes for hilarious reading, as the companies, who have formally joined together as the Coalition of Ereader Manufacturers, go to enormous lengths to point out that their devices are meant for reading, and reading can only happen one way: silently, in size 12 font, by people so dazzled by the content-to-mass sleight of hand characteristic of ereaders that they’ll sit stunned in their armchairs and not ask for anything fancy.  For instance, their argument:

Ereaders are marketed to readers with one activity in mind: reading. For example, on the Amazon product listing for the 5th generation Kindle Ereader, all nine bullets at the top of the page describing the device contain phrases referring to books or reading, including “lighter than a paperback,” “for easier reading,” “[r]eads like paper,” “[d]ownload books,” “[h]olds over 1,000 books,” “[m]assive book selection,” “books by best-selling authors,” “[s]upports children’s books,” and “[l]ending [l]ibrary.”

All nine bullets! That’s serious. That’s three more bullets than Jean-Claude Van Damme needed to bust up that network of criminals.


Headlines on the Kobo Aura HD product listing include “[e]nhanced eReading,” “[r]ead in the ideal light,” “[d]esigned for readers,” “[a] mobile library,” and “[e]njoy millions of eBooks.”Not only does the Sony Reader have “read” in its name, it brands itself as “Your Personal Library” and is featured in the “ebookstore” section of the Sony website. Sony also describes the Reader as a “Digital Book” and as “[t]he eReader that reads like a real book.”

We get it, CERM, you know what books are, and books don’t talk. Or make concessions to anyone who wants to read them. (But what do you mean “it reads like a real book,” exactly?)

Now there is a valid point here amongst all the squirming, and that is that the manufacturers are trying to establish the difference between their products and tablets. Tablets, they claim, are “advanced communication services” (ACS), like IP-enabled TVs, set-top boxes, and gaming consoles, services and software, and because tablets have features in common with these devices, like LCD screens, cameras, audio capabilities, and built-in email and instant messaging apps, they should be bound by CVAA. Whereas ereaders are universally understood to be not very advanced, and therefore little should be expected of them.

The CERM members argue that making ereaders comply with CVAA standards would require them to substantially alter the nature of their product, making them into general purpose devices. And they’re unwilling to do this, for (vaguely) intellectual and financial reasons.

In the end, this may be a non-problem, as tablet ownership outstrips ereader numbers. But it’s an immediate and pressing issue for many libraries, who have a legal responsibility to provide equal access to materials, as specified in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, and who’ve been working very hard to incorporate ereaders and e-lending into library services. In an article for American Libraries, Beverly Goldberg summarized the library world’s response to CERM’s petition:

ALA (American Library Association), the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), and 23 disability-rights organizations were among more than 500 groups and individuals filing comments with the FCC in opposition to the waier. (Only a few commenters back the petition.) “The print-disabled are readers and consumers just as sighted people [who] want what others have—‘same book, same time, same price,’ wrote Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington Office.

As a rallying cry, it may not be the most inspiring. But in its insistence on the plausibility of the ideal of equal access for all consumers, it may sound strangely familiar to ereader manufacturers, who’ve long touted their own democratic cred. At the very least, it’s a challenge.





Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.