Going blind? DRM will dim your world

Going blind? DRM will dim your world

Summary: Many of us will start losing our eyesight as we age. The digital world can help get round some of these physical impediments - but not if digital rights management and the like blocks our accessibility.

TOPICS: After Hours

I said at the start of this polemic that there's never been a better time to go blind: we are busy converting the world to digital, and digital is supremely easy to convert.

The web is particularly excellent for this: it runs to open standards and, in general, you don't have to know or care anything about what browser, what operating system, what network providers, what servers or what back-end software is involved in getting content onto your screen. For most of the history of computing, such a scenario was purely theoretical: open standards — and only open standards — have allowed it.

Magnifying glass on screen
Open standards have driven the web forward.

Anywhere that open standards can be excluded, they are. Anywhere open standards are excluded, the game changes — the people who control a closed system are at liberty to manage it according to their business model, and are free to deny whatever they feel goes against their interests. Whether they are actually against the business's interests, or whether they're actually very advantageous to the customer, are secondary considerations.

READ PART 1: Going blind in a digital world: The road to reclaiming my web sight

So, with very many non-web applications on desktops or mobile, the developers don't bother adding accessibility features such as font, colour or layout customisations: what business they lose is judged less important than getting things out of the door on time and to budget.

There is no competitive or legislative pressure on them to do this, so it doesn't get done. To some extent, that is compensated for by OS features and additional utilities that can change screen size or scrape text and transform it. To a greater extent, we are free to choose other solutions and bypass the worst sinners.

READ PART 2: Tech for the visually impaired will bring tears to your eyes

None of that is true when DRM appears. With DRM, the commercial model of the provider goes beyond an application or a service. It is designed to constrain the customer to using something in only the way approved by the content provider, and it has legal backing.

If I can't use a particular word processor, I can find another. But if I can't read a particular book because it is only readable on a particular platform and that platform isn't readable to me, I'm stuck.

'Enjoy your experience'

I wanted to read a fairly obscure book that was available online from a large publisher. I had the option of "Adobe PDF or epub" for the electronic version (it's very hard for me to read print without faffing). I chose epub, thinking that it was an open format where I could pick my platform and display mode; I chose to pay for the book instead of finding it pirated online, because now and again we all want to do the right thing.

What appeared in my download directory wasn't an epub file, it was ACSM format, which neither my PC nor its owner knew about. Turns out it's Adobe, which is almost always bad news if you want to do anything against Adobe's perceived interests.

Getting this far had taken me half an hour fighting my way through a nest of misery and frustration with broken eyes and a sinking heart

As it was this time: some research later and it turned out I needed Adobe Digital Editions to 'manage my content'. Some fun later — you have to download it from a particularly brain-dead web page with teeny-tiny dialog boxes that were broken in Chrome and invisible in Firefox — and I had a large blob of code to install on my Windows box.

It tried, of course, to force me to give Adobe my email and other details for the 'Adobe ID' that it assured me I needed to get full functionality. I demurred... and was confronted by a user interface that was tiny white text on a black background. Unreadable. Options to change this? If they exist, I couldn't find them.

Getting this far had taken me half an hour fighting my way through a nest of misery and frustration with broken eyes and a sinking heart. Along the way, I'd been bombarded by marketing messages telling me to "enjoy the experience" and "enjoy your book".

Reader, I wept. Marketing departments, here's a top tip: if your customer is reduced to actual, hot, stinging tears, you may wish to fine-tune your messaging.

The responsibilities of DRM

This is the reward you get for being disabled and wanting to do the right thing. This is how the world's most splendid machine for freeing our minds from our physical shackles is itself being shackled. This is what will happen to all of you reading this as you get old. I know this, I've done the research: most of you will start to go blind before you die.

This is how the world's most splendid machine for freeing our minds from our physical shackles is itself being shackled

And you will lose your digital world, the one that most promises to save you, unless people who are granted the protection of DRM are made conscious of the responsibilities that come with it. Those responsibilities include fair use, accessibility and accountability: you do not get to set the rules you like and ignore the rest.

Or, rather, you do. We may wish to change this, and soon.

Being an online citizen, of course, it didn't take long to find out how to break the DRM (which is a figleaf that punishes the honest and is ignored by the rest) and extract the content I had paid for and wanted to read.

I dare say this is against the terms and conditions of one or more of the many impossible-to-read EULAs I clicked on in the process of trying to be a responsible digital consumer. But the author got paid and nobody lost out — except for me, in terms of time lost and mental misery endured. But I'm not looking for recompense. Really, I have better things to be getting on with than that.

A plague on all your (Adobe) houses

I promised some top-quality cursing. Here it comes. It's for Adobe in particular, but it's also for every time you've had to watch pre-roll video advertising for a clip that proves "unavailable in your region", every time you've tried to cut and paste a paragraph from a document or website that's disabled right-click, every time you've found publicly funded or out-of-copyright content behind a paywall, every time you've wanted to behave properly and been improperly denied.

It's for everyone who consciously makes these things happen and has the unbridled temerity to wear the cloak of justice in so doing.

But mostly, right now, it's for Adobe.

I call down upon them the fury of the heavens and the chaos of the darkness. May they be forever denied water in the wilderness. May they starve at the feast and fill their mouths with hot ashes and scorpions. Most of all, may they grow old and frail in a world where infirmity is a crime, proper behaviour punished, and love of good things rewarded by suspicion and denial. For that is the world they will to me and to all of us. May they taste it too.

That's better.

Let's see what we can see

There'll be more to report as I get stuck into my new way of seeing. I've been using a number of mobile devices — iPhone, iPad, Nexus 7 and Samsung Galaxy SII — and I've no doubt that here is the key to remaining productive, informated and connected.

But there have been some unpleasant surprises and some frustrations. Google's reluctance to support fully flexible zooming in its mobile apps is particularly annoying — especially given that it switches to them instead of the browser at every opportunity. Google+ is dead to me. And that lack of a camera on the back of the Nexus 7 means no easy magnifier, no OCR.

That and more to come. If the computers have been frustrating, however, the people — friends, workmates, management, my many contacts in the industry — have been nothing short of exceptional. With more offers of help than any man can sensibly use, here the frustration has been that I haven't been able to take them up: there's been nothing much to do but wait and — so to speak — see.

The best way to pay back will be to keep these issues live. Awareness comes first, then an understanding of the importance of fixing the problems, then the commitment to making it happen. First things first. Let's see what we can do.

Topic: After Hours

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Sister asked me to copy music from CD onto her MP3 Player.

    Windows insisted that on CD there are only 24KB of data. Just 1KB for each sound track.

    Rebooted to Linux, copied full 700 MB (30 000x more than Win showed :D ) onto her MP3. Job done.

    Oh. btw Rupert. In some countries breaking DRM for your personal use is ILLEGAL. As is talking about such think, or encouraging it. I can think about at least one that is actively trying to export such laws into other countries laws.
    • Stick to the topic

      What does your copying an audio CD have to do with anything? Mr. Goodwins' argument is that he bought (that is, he PAID for) a book listed as being in a format compatible with his software, but the ultimate download was not in the format listed.

      Your "in some countries" has nothing to do with Mr. Goodwins book, and is a moot point. Before you discuss copyright laws as they relate to materials for the blind, you might want to search Google for the term "Chafee Amendment" (include the quotes in your search), and then perform a second search for "blind materials treaty" (exclude the quotes) - you might be surprised to find there are laws covering the United States, as-well-as International laws dealing with materials for the blind.
  • Blaming the technology provider

    You rant at Adobe throughout this article, yet Adobe really has nothing to do with this. They simply provide technology.

    The author of the book and/or the publisher of the content choose to use DRM. This time they chose Adobe's DRM, but if it was available from Amazon, it might as well have been their DRM. Or from Apple in iBookstore, their DRM. etc. etc. etc.

    So how about you take your rant and send it where it belongs - to whomever you purchased the content from. (a company whose name you (conveniently?) left out of the article.
    • Wrong

      They provide a technology that is inflexible and unusable to someone with Rupert's disability.

      When even the EULA can't be resized or the colour changed to make it legible, how is that not Adobe's problem?

      That none of the dialogs in the installation allowed him to select different colours, fonts or sizes to make it legible is Adobe's fault.

      We concentrate too much on making things for "normals", yet we spend no time considering whether what is legible for us is legible to others, or giving them the option change things. That takes time and messes up our "style".

      It is possible to allow options for those with disabilities, to make using a computer and accessing information easier for them, but it takes time and effort and therefore money to implement. Therefore it is very seldom that such custimosation is available, especially in something like the installer itself...

      "You can't see properly? Get somebody with 20-20 vision to install it for you, you sad git!"

      Is that really the message Adobe and others want to perpetuate with their products?
    • How about this?

      I won't buy any DRMed materials, period. In practice, that means the pnly e-books in my possession are public domain; if I want to read a book under copyright, I either buy a paper copy or check one out from the library.

      If this is seen as anti-business extremism, then so be it.
      John L. Ries
  • Kindle / eReaders

    Hi Rupert, I would be interested to hear how you get on with the Kindle and/or other eBook readers.

    They seem to provide a range of zoom options and reflow text (at least native text, PDFs maybe a different matter) and change contrast or inverse the colours. Does that help or do they suffer from other problems?
  • Talk about crap websites for the visually impaired!!

    ZDnet take a bow, your stupid 'make a user' dialogue was so buggy that i could not even register even after i made a twitter acct just to do so. With my visual issues it took two sets of 30 min sessions to get this message up. I eventually borrowed this username (hey! even not-very-well-sighted people can hack your stuff, like we can hack DRM, so stick that in yer pipe and smoke it, if you can't even get your login system to work properly you can't have my demographic info, can you.)
    I suffered through that login rigmarole because i want to shout out that i totally have the shits with the web un-usability nowadays- we are getting gradually worse and worse websites!! Yes, many of the people using the net now will get crap eyes in the future. And here i am after 2 eye operations i'm tons better, but even though i have an Ipad which should make things bigger when i open my fingers on the page... guess what, most "MOBILE" pages don't resize!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How freaking idiotic is that?????????? It beggars belief that this could become "the way things are done" on the internet, but here we are.. and now with 7" tablets (or those big phones) - even eagle eyed youngsters are going to soon realise its a total screaming joke to make mobile pages unresizable. I mean who thought that would be a good idea, huh? And who agreed?

    BTW Ebooks only work for me if they are white text on black background. It would be *really* great if they made green on black, or orange on black, like the old dos screens, because the white is actually very glary. But hey white on black makes it possible for me to read so i guess its a start.
    beau parisi
    • Formats for ebooks

      I don't think it's available on Android but an application /program with many options that might help is Calibre. It's a free reader that accepts multiple formats but not seen.
      Hope this helps.
      • Correction

        Sorry predictive text tricked me!
        Last sentence should say... multiple formats but not drm.
        Also for Android readability app is very good when it works!
  • No Anthropologists in Tech Design?

    Even "normal" (i.e. non-disabling in the real world) anatomical variations are ignored in the tech world. Switching from eyes to ears, a minor but annoying complaint I have had is with earplugs. I have never been able to get ear"plugs" to "plug" into my ear properly, and with a limited budget for throw-away trial and error, I finally had to resort to going to an audiologist and paying three times the price of my budget Bluetooth earplug to have a custom molded earplug that snaps on. Finally, I have a comfortable Bluetooth that STAYS in my ear! It seems that, ever since the 1960's model "mini-nipple" shape earplug went away, earphones only fit people with ears that are extra small on the outside (so the tiny, non-adjustable hanger will fit properly) and extra large on the inside (so the flat, speaker shaped plug will stay in).

    Apparently, human factors people and "statistical anthropologists" are NOT on the payroll in most tech development companies. I would be curious about the demographics of the design staffs that make ridiculously narrow assumptions (it fits MY ear just fine, let's build it). This is probably the reason for the failure to accommodate the blind and visually impaired: 25 year olds with perfect eyesight are designing products that, ironically, they may be unable to use in 40 to 50 years, or sooner if they are unfortunate enough to have a tragic accident or unexpected illness.

    The various agencies that help the blind and other handicapped, unfortunately, have little government clout and have to spread their pittance of charitable funds very thin, so these business interests seldom listen to them. And Rupert is probably right that most of the accessibility add-on products, and features built into products like Windows, are there to "check off boxes" that they have SOMETHING for the disabled, and mostly for disabled who work for large corporations so that THEY can check off boxes and accommodate a few disabled workers to avoid ADA or equivalent local law complaints. Probably one reason they want US to elect politicians that will repeal regulations protecting US from THEM (in the current U.S. elections, aRRRRRRgh!) is to avoid the cost of accommodating disabled workers. (Blind? Go get a cup and pencils and sit on the corner!)

    My problem is certainly trivial compared to Rupert and his handicapped cohorts, but it shows the problem is not restricted to the blind. Society's attitude, and particularly the attitude of the opinion-making money-makers in society, governs what technology will be invented, or if invented, implemented. Every see the inside of the 1970's Speak and Spell toy? It has no technology that was not available in the 1920's, and that mechanical technology COULD have been used to make time-speaking clocks to help the blind, but the blind were considered "invalids" (in BOTH senses) in those days, so there was no perceived market, and so none were built. Now we have much more technology available, but many businesses choose not to make it more available than absolutely necessary to sell to the least demanding customers.
  • Let's get real

    DRM is something that is out there because companies can get away with it - and they scratched the back of legislators to allow it. DRM undermines a thousand years of copyright and contract law - I don't own what I purchase and the publishers can dictate when and how I use it. Can my razor company limit my use to at a sink, not a shower? Can they demand that my heirs send it back because I was only licensing use? No. DRM is "1984."
  • why jump through hoops?

    If the website actually said they were going to sell you a .epub document and sent a .acsm document instead, why go through all this? Contact the vendor and either get what you paid for or reverse the payment on the credit card you used to pay them. It would also be good if you mentioned the name of the vendor, so that other people do not get stuck with the same problem. instead you whine about software that you had to download from Adobe to read a document that was delivered in a different format than the one you purchased. Since you did not mention the publisher more people will get stuck with the same problem, even though they read your post, and will have to go through the same pain loading unwanted Adobe software. Tell us where you bought the book, so more people don't have to go through the same ordeal. By failing to provide that information you are actually helping the publisher continue using DRM, when you could have actually done something useful.
  • The thinking seems to be

    That DRM is the only problem, but, I beg to differ! Web sites and even this Blog provice plenty of bad experiences for the people with dim eyesight. One recurring example is low contrast text (like the side notes in this blob). Most people with bad eyesight do not have the knowlege to correct any of these faults. So, lets look at our own falts first, before we critisize others!!
  • DRM and EULAs

    DRM is an injustice. Thanks to your article, we know it falls
    especially harshly for people with vision problems. This is another
    reason to fight to get rid of DRM for everyone.

    EULAs are an injustice too -- so I beg you to reject the idea that
    signing them could be part of being a "responsible digital consumer".
    To be responsible digital citizens, we should firmly and totally
    reject EULAs as well as DRM. See http://stallman.org/ebooks.pdf.
  • EULAs and DRM are total horsehockey

    What I said. We have the best government money can buy, private money that is. If we want the government to serve all of the people, all of the people communally have to pay for elections and forbid private election funding. my 2c
  • Wrong target

    To be clear, I share your concern about offering better accessibility to digital content for aging people. Many years ago, I worked in European projects for UI dedicated to disabled people.

    Unfortunately, I disagree on the culprit pointed by your paper. You complain about DRM. When I read the description, I see three main points:
    1- The content was delivered in a format that was not supported by your device. This has nothing to do with DRM. It is more a question of proprietary format where you have to download a proprietary software. This is not relevant to DRM. Some proprietary formats are not DRM protected whereas some public format can be DRM-protected.
    2- "was confronted by a user interface that was tiny white text on a black background. Unreadable. Options to change this? If they exist, I couldn't find them.", This is a UI issue independent from DRM. The designers did not take care to provide such features (and too many pieces of software do not allow to change default font size or color theme)
    3- Too many commercial messages; Where is the DRM here...

    Thus, I do not see where DRM relates to it. Nevertheless, I can see scenarios where DRM could be a problem for "aging" public such for instance as to not allowing the Text To Speech feature in an eBook (which already occured in the past). For instance, this is why a new exemption has been added to DMCA for circumventing DRM in this case (See http://eric-diehl.com/six-new-exemptions-to-dmca/).

    For your message to be stronger, you should be more precise: either point to the right culprits or come with bad DRM scenarios (and they exist)
  • It is actually worse than even you think.

    I wrote quite a bit here, but was unable to post because someting said my post contained profanities... There were no profanities.
  • Let there be dark on Radio 3

    I chanced upon this programme this week having no idea about the content. I can find nowhere else to comment so I'll use this platform. I found it entertaining ,informative and inspiring. This is what I hope for on Radio 3 crossing new boundaries and giving me new perspectives. You manage to cover so much ground over a wide range of topics making me want to investigate and learn more. Can't help thinking that maybe radio rather than the internet is the most helpful medium for people with disabilities .A very big thank you and I look forward to more groundbreaking programmes like this!