Law in Fact, Unenforced in Practice

United States law now requires that closed captioning services be accessible for all programming produced by streaming video services and must be provided by broadcasters for all content distributed across the Internet if captioned when originally presented on-air (although in many cases, closed captioning services are still not available for some programs). When more and more people are looking to electronic media for their news and information needs, the importance of accessibility and transparency is clear. So what’s the problem?

In a BBC report last year,YouTube itself stated that its closed captioning services for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing are “by no means good enough yet.” According to the report, as of February 2015 YouTube had more than one billion unique users every month with over six billion hours of content accessed and viewed each month. According to YouTube’s own figures, approximately one-quarter of their content is closed captioned, and of that, the great bulk is produced via automatic captioning. A prominent vlogger and advocate for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing states in the report that the automatic captions generated by YouTube make “absolutely no sense.”

So, how serious are we about accessibility? Three-quarters of YouTube’s media content are not accessible at all via closed captioning services, and of the 25% that are available a tremendous amount is lacking in accuracy, frequently rendering a transcript that bears little if any relationship to what is actually being spoken.

The most encouraging response to this sorry state of affairs has been via accessibility advocates encouraging volunteers to personally step in and caption clips themselves. The BBC report states that soon after a prominent video supporting better closed captioning began to circulate, over 2000 captions were submitted in 70 different languages. While this is gratifying, clearly it’s only a drop in the bucket when videos posted to YouTube alone account for nearly an hour uploaded for each person on the planet each month. And while this work is being done with virtuous intent, who’s responsible for guaranteeing the accuracy of these captions? For universal accessibility for all to be taken seriously, the accuracy of the captions accompanying electronic media must be taken seriously as well.