New rules to make government information and technology accessible to disabled citizens and government workers have high-tech firms frantic about their effect on competitiveness and the difficulty in meeting the deadline for compliance. "I think we're on the brink of a new era," said a source at one large software industry company. "With these rules, the software industry for the first time becomes a regulated industry." The controversial final rules, mandated under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, were published in late December. The U.S. Access Board, which is tasked with making both the online and bricks-and-mortar worlds more accessible to the disabled, promulgated the rules late last year, and the White House Office of Management and Budget later approved them. Industry sources said the new rules might hinder competitiveness and creativity in the development of new products, which they said has flourished in the absence of government intervention. "The government for the first time is mandating the feature set of software through its purchasing power," one software industry source said. Companies are not going to produce separate versions for government and non-governmental purchasers, he said. So even though the new rules technically only apply to software used in federal contracts, the rule effectively mandates software changes in both the public and private sectors for any companies that do business with the government. There is also concern about how the government will implement the rule, sources said. Companies want to continue to self-certify, which allows them to "rev" products faster. These new releases can come as often as every six months. If products must be approved by an in-house federal testing center, it could add significantly to product life cycles, the source said. While industry sources stressed strong support for disabled access and mentioned the many ways they have worked to improve that access, they are nevertheless seriously concerned about the new rules. Patrick Melody, a spokesman at the Business Software Alliance, said the regulations might be "overreaching." Companies' compliance is enforceable as of June 21, which will be difficult to meet given the requirement that companies not only ensure product accessibility but interoperability with other products as well, noted Ted Karle, an e-commerce lobbyist at the Software and Information Industry Association. He also noted that product standardization for accessibility could raise competition issues as one company might win out. Jason Mahler, vice president and general counsel at the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said, "We want to do what is possible and what is feasible, but that may not always make complete accessibility possible." He noted that the Web is still in its infancy, technologies are still being formulated and some sites are struggling to get started, so "we want to make sure no undue burdens are placed on Web sites." One software industry source said the rules might lead to a number of lawsuits filed by federal employees against the government for failure to comply.
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