On behalf of 100 million persons with disabilities in the EU, the European Disability Forum (EDF) expresses its great disappointment with the failure of the EU institutions to guarantee accessibility of digital services in the Digital Services Act (DSA). Instead of requiring accessibility as an obligation in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the co-legislators agreed on considering accessibility as a voluntary good practice. EDF urgently calls the EU institutions to reconsider this agreement before adopting the final law.
On 23 April, two years after the European Commission proposed the DSA, the European Parliament and the Council (made up of Member States) agreed on the final text of the new regulation. The agreement has been hailed as a milestone achievement in regulating big online platforms, protecting users online, ensuring freedom of expression and opportunities for businesses. However, this new regulation does not protect millions of persons with disabilities because persons with disabilities may not be able to access digital services in the first place.
Instead of mandatory accessibility obligations for digital services, policymakers decided to include accessibility provisions under voluntary codes of conduct for providers. Instead of owning up to their commitments under the CRPD and ensuring a rights-based approach to disability inclusion, they opted for a charity-based approach, leaving accessibility measures to the good will of service providers.
This is an especially regrettable outcome given that the EU already has a solid legal and technical basis for guaranteeing accessibility for persons with disabilities. Instead of building on the achievements of the European Accessibility Act, the current agreement takes Union accessibility policy a step back. As a result, instead of allowing everyone to utilise the innovative nature of digital technologies, policymakers allowed by law the risk of an increasing digital divide between those who can access and benefit from new technologies and those who are left behind in the digital transition.
After several reassurances to EDF by the Council, Member States, the European Parliament, and the Commission that a satisfactory compromise on ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities will be achieved, EDF is deeply disappointed with the legal gap that will allow certain digital service providers not covered by the Accessibility Act to overlook accessibility for persons with disabilities.
Rights are not voluntary
The DSA promises to empower consumers and civil society, including by the possibility to challenge platforms’ content moderation decisions and seek redress, either via an out-of-court dispute mechanism or judicial redress; provision of access to vetted researchers to the key data of the largest platforms and provision of access to public data for non- governmental organisations, to provide more insight into how online risks evolve; transparency measures for online platforms on a variety of issues, including on the algorithms used for recommending content or products to users. It also requires big platforms to develop crisis protocols to inform people of occurring emergencies quickly and efficiently.
All these achievements are very important and needed measures for consumers of digital services. But if accessibility is only considered as a good practice to be included in codes of conduct, millions of persons with disabilities may not be able to use social media, access news, create content on platforms, find information through search engines, or start their online businesses.
Equally important and regrettable, persons with disabilities will be less protected than non-disabled citizens, as the mechanisms to flag hate speech or illegal goods will only be accessible depending on the good will of the digital services providers. It will also be up to the digital service providers to ensure that persons with disabilities have control over their private data and what content or products they are recommended by algorithms. Disabled researchers and organisations of persons with disabilities will only be able to monitor and study if online platforms create risks for persons with disabilities, if the providers decide to guarantee accessibility. Finally, in case of public health or other emergencies, persons with disabilities may not be able to receive vital emergency information which can have detrimental consequences for their wellbeing and life.
Essentially, the political agreement of the DSA does not protect persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, because it considers accessibility, a fundamental human right enshrined in the EU legal framework, a merely voluntary provision up to the good will of digital services providers.
Thus, EDF urges the EU co-legislators to rectify this political agreement before adopting the final text.