Just browsing should be fair for all

“In order to use this site, you must have JavaScript enabled and Internet Explorer Version 6. Download it from Microsoft or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) to register.” — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual Assistance Center

At the end of August there was a stir when the U.S. Copyright Office announced that to preregister eligible copyright claims under the Artists’ Rights and Theft Prevention Act of 2005, you’d have to use Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The Copyright Office continued with: “Support for Netscape 7.2, Firefox 1.0.3 and Mozilla 1.7.7 is planned but will not be available when preregistration goes into effect. Present users of these browsers may experience problems when filing claims.”

The result of this startlingly bad decision was that everyone, particularly the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), was up in arms. The Copyright Office defended itself by arguing that the mandated timeline for implementation required them to make trade-offs, so Internet Explorer it was. Apparently they were using Siebel, which limited their browser support and, well, blah, blah, blah.

The bottom line is that the Copyright Office made a bad decision. Had it bothered to pay attention to what its target users not only need but expect, it wouldn’t have wound up with pie on its face.

This month in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we find that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made the same mistake. And in a place where it was, to say the least, highly visible: The Individual Assistance Center, a Web site for people to register for aid.

After the Turing test (you know, enter the visually distorted word), you’d have been informed that without Internet Explorer 6, you were SOL. But call us. We do want to help. Honest. Call us.

Legislation should make no attempt to define how technology is supposed to work, but here I will make an exception. There needs to be a bill that mandates a standard that defines a lowest common denominator of access that must be implemented by all government Web sites.

The standard must allow for full access by all browsers that correctly — let me say that again: correctly — implement W3C standards.

It must allow for end users who don’t have the latest and greatest browser. It must not favour any vendor. It must allow and assist end users whose browsers are misconfigured or who are disabled. It must not allow agencies to require JavaScript, plug-ins or any other browser enhancement that could result in weakening the security of an end user’s computer.

The government has to realize that the Internet has become the nervous system of the country, and anything that gets in the way of the flow of communication, even if out of expediency it seems a good idea, is simply not acceptable.

QuickLink: 056354

–You don’t need Internet Explorer to write tobackspin@gibbs.com.

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