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Going blind? DRM will dim your world

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.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

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.

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