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Last Updated: Friday, 16 July, 2004, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Building a web fit for all
A lawyer's letter has taken an accessible website offline and technology analyst Bill Thompson is not impressed.

Odeon cinema
Odeon sent letters about the unofficial site
Last year, Matthew Somerville got so fed up with the problems he found when trying to use the Odeon cinema website that he decided to do something about it.

He was annoyed that the site only worked if you were using Microsoft's Internet Explorer, that pages were very large and slow to download, and that the interface was completely unusable by anyone using a screen reader.

Since he is a talented programmer, he examined the code behind the official website and figured out how to "scrape" off the details of programmes, film times and booking details.

Then he wrote his own simple, easy-to-use and fully accessible version, nicknaming it "accessible Odeon", and put it up on his personal pages.

It was a modest success, and the management at Odeon did not seem to mind it being there since although they said they were working on their own accessible site, there was no sign that it was going to be launching in the near future.

Legal moves

But last month Matthew got a letter telling him to take his site down and threatening "to take such steps as are necessary to protect our customers and Odeon's intellectual property".

Bill Thompson
Whatever happens with the Odeon, some large companies have realised that the letter of the law is not all that matters here
As a law-abiding citizen with a day job and no resources to fight any legal action, Matthew removed the pages and replaced them with a brief note explaining what had happened.

He doesn't have the time or resources to fight them, and probably does not have a defence against their claim that he used their name and logo without permission.

But the cinema group has now drawn attention to the fact that its site is not usable by people with a visual disability, and this could mean that it is breaking the law, too.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to treat disabled people less favourably than other people for a reason related to their disability when providing goods and services, and this might apply to websites and not just shops or offices.

In the US, the courts have established that the equivalent law, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, applies online, and that someone who goes to a website to buy something deserves the same access as someone who goes to a shop or office.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that the UK law, written before the internet was so widely used, does apply online, and we may have to wait for a test case.

Whatever happens with the Odeon, some large companies have realised that the letter of the law is not all that matters here.

Open web

In May, Tesco launched Tesco Access, an accessible version of their online store. As a purist, I would rather that they had worked to make the existing site accessible, since I do not believe in e-apartheid for disabled web users, but at least the site is there.

Tesco Access is extremely well-designed and easy to use, and it is not just about ticking the accessible website box when the Disability Rights Commission send round their survey forms.

Tesco is now in a position to sell to the one million blind and visually impaired people in Britain, and that is a significant new market for them. There are even indications that users of the main site are transferring to the accessible site because it is faster and simpler.

Tesco should be applauded, but there are too many sites that are inaccessible and hard to use, and a vague threat of action under the DDA is obviously not enough to persuade them to change.

The Odeon site, now offline, is not Matthew's only project. He has also made an easy-to-use version of the national rail timetable and live departure boards, as well as one for the Hutton Inquiry.

Fortunately the people running these sites do not seem to object to him helping them out, at least not so far.

But he would have no legal defence if they did, partly because European copyright law gives full protection to databases like cinema listings or the rail timetable even if they are assembled from publicly available information.

Fortunately there is a solution.

Get it right

Last October the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002 came into force. It lets people with a visual impairment make their own accessible versions of printed copyright material, and allows schools and not-for-profit bodies to make multiple copies for use by people with visual impairment.

The Act only applies where no equivalent accessible copy is available commercially, and is clearly there to solve the problems that arise when publishers of books or magazines do not bother to produce accessible copies, in Braille, large print or audio versions, of their publications.

The law was written to apply to printed material, but it would be a simple matter for a government that really cared about the interests of people with disabilities to extend it to cover electronically published material.

Matthew Somerville builds his sites partly because he can, since he has the skill to take someone else's tangled code and turn it into an easy-to-use site, and partly because he believes he is making the world a better place.

If the law was changed, then Matthew and the other dedicated programmers who have the skill and the time to sort out the worst examples of inaccessible websites could work without having to worry about lawyers' letters and court cases they cannot afford to defend.

And if the companies involved did not like it, all they would have to do is build their own accessible version. Or make their sites accessible from the start.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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