This Company Tapped AI for Its Website—and Landed in Court - 4 minutes read
Last year, Anthony Murphy, a visually impaired man who lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, visited the website of eyewear retailer Eyebobs using screen reader software. Its synthesized voice attempted to read out the page’s content, as well as navigation buttons and menus. Eyebobs used artificial intelligence software from Israeli startup AccessiBe that promised to make its site easier for people with disabilities to use. But Murphy found it made it harder.
AccessiBe says it can simplify the work of making websites accessible to people with impaired vision or other challenges by “replacing a costly, manual process with an automated, state-of-the-art AI technology.” In a lawsuit filed against Eyebobs in January, Murphy alleged that the retailer failed to provide people using screen readers equal access to its services and that the technology from AccessiBe—not party to the suit—doesn’t work as advertised.
In October, Eyebobs agreed to a settlement in which it denied Murphy’s allegations but agreed to hire an accessibility consultant to help overhaul its website and mobile apps and dedicate staff to the issue. Like many AI startups, AccessiBe markets its technology as cheaper than paying humans. Eyebobs now must pay people anyway, by court order.
The lawsuit against Eyebobs is among a growing number in recent years accusing companies of breaching web accessibility standards. Offers to fix websites with AI technology have grown too, along with complaints from some accessibility advocates that it doesn’t work as advertised.
The case also provides a rare example of a company facing legal consequences for betting on AI technology that didn’t perform as hoped. The list is likely to grow. Advances in machine learning have convinced companies to place more trust in algorithms, but the technology sometimes isn’t up to the task.
Machine learning excels at narrowly defined problems under consistent and unvarying conditions. The world’s most interesting and important challenges often involve unpredictable environments where human judgments can far surpass those of machines.
Facebook has for years said that algorithms will fight nasty content on its platforms, but mounting evidence, including from internal documents, suggests the problem is far from being contained. Making sense of the subtleties of language, which can be highly context-specific, is one of the hardest challenges in the field. In August, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of crashes in which Tesla vehicles using the company's bombastically marketed automated driving system hit parked emergency vehicles. Machine vision has improved, and algorithms don’t get sleepy, but people are still better at making sense of complex physical situations.
Online accessibility makes fewer headlines than self-driving cars, but technologists are applying AI there as well. At the same time, the wave of lawsuits around accessibility is driving companies to tech providers like AccessiBe.
The Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in everyday activities such as shopping or working, doesn’t mention the web. It was enacted in 1990, the same year the first webpage was published inside CERN. But courts recently have opened the door to civil suits arguing that websites are effectively “places of public accommodation,” and cases have soared. UsableNet, which makes accessibility tools, estimates that in 2020 there were 3,550 such cases filed in the US, up more than 50 percent since 2018. Murphy has filed several other suits similar to the one against Eyebobs.
In 2019 the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Domino's Pizza of a lower court ruling that its website and app must comply with accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops web standards. That and other cases have given the W3C guidelines authority approaching that of law.
Those lengthy guidelines specify best practices for digitally accommodating people with visual impairments or other needs. Running to more than 100 pages when printed, the precepts include providing alternative text for images and video; clear use of contrast and color; and ensuring that features like forms and menus are navigable using only a keyboard, without use of a mouse or finger.
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