Ministers of 34 European countries this week answered a call for all public sector websites to be made accessible to disabled users – four years after the call was made by the European Parliament.
A spokesman for the Commission told OUT-LAW today that the commitment could succeed through peer pressure. New laws are unlikely.
In a Resolution dated 13th June 2002, MEPs made reference to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the W3C and called for "all public websites of the EU institutions and the Member States to be fully accessible to disabled persons by 2003".
With reference to the three levels of accessibility recognised by the WAI, the 2002 Resolution added: "for websites to be accessible, it is essential that they are double-A compliant, that priority 2 of the WAI guidelines must be fully implemented".
Little progress has been made since. The UK Presidency of the European Council commissioned tests of 436 public sector websites across Europe. Its report, published last November, revealed just 3% achieving a minimum standard of accessibility, Level A. No website in the sample met the Level AA ('double-A') or Level AAA standard.
Acknowledging that study, ministers of EU Member States, accession and candidate countries, European Free Trade Area countries and other countries signed a declaration on "eInclusion" targets at a conference in Riga, Latvia on Monday.
It is less demanding than the Parliament's Regulation of four years ago, adding a generous seven years to the original target for member states. It asks them to ensure "accessibility of all public web sites by 2010, through compliance with the relevant W3C common web accessibility standards and guidelines."
There is no echo of the Parliament's call for Level AA conformance. Instead, Ministers have agreed that, by next year, signatory states will "make recommendations on accessibility standards and common approaches".
European Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding attended the conference. She welcomed the declaration. "By implementing their Riga undertakings, European countries will take a big step towards making eInclusion a reality," she said.
However, Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr told OUT-LAW today that there would be no penalty for Member States that fail to act. "There is only the moral sanction of being last in class," he said, pointing out that peer pressure can be an effective motivator within the EU.
The Resolution of 2002 was "a political signal to say that something must be done," he explained. "We're doing this. Parliament has asked; now states have agreed."
He pointed out that the Parliament Resolution followed a Commission Communication of the same year.
Asked whether any new EU laws could be expected, Selmayr replied: "Commissioner Reding always prefers market-oriented approaches to regulatory intervention, which is for her an instrument of last resort only in clear cases of market failure. Therefore, I consider it unlikely that she will propose legislation to mandate web accessibility for all websites (whether public or private) in the next years."
He also confirmed that the Ministerial Declaration concerns public sector websites only (it refers to 'public sites').
"The eInclusion targets are targets set by national governments and the EU Commission," he said. "They bind themselves only, and therefore only relate to the websites of public administrations with the purpose of making public administrations in Europe more accessible and more user-friendly to all parts of society."
Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM, said that, for public sector websites in the UK, there is already a compelling case for demanding Level AA accessibility.
He pointed to the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF), which states, “Compliance to level AA is recommended”. The Office of Depute Prime Minister published guidance in July 2005 saying: “All pages published on [English] council websites should conform to Level AA”.
"There is also a Disability Equality Duty in force from December this year which should put digital inclusion higher up the public sector agenda," said Robertson. This will not apply to the private sector – but the private sector is still bound by the main provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act, which calls for public and private sector websites to be accessible and usable for all. "The UK has a much broader accessibility law than can be found in other European countries," said Robertson.
This week's Declaration also makes reference to public procurement policies. For the procurement of all information and communication technologies (ICT), accessibility "standards and common approaches" should be "explored," it says, with a view to making them mandatory in public procurement by 2010.
Again, the UK has such obligations in force already. Robertson pointed to the Public Contracts Regulations 2006, in force since January. These state that: “When laying down technical specifications … a contracting authority shall, wherever possible, take into account accessibility criteria for disabled persons or the suitability of the design for all users.”