• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


World Standards Day

Norms matter, for privacy, accessibility and more.


October 12, 2015

October 14 is World Standards Day. Noting the European tilt, even in the British spelling of the word “honours,” of the Wikipedia article about it, I am not surprised that few Americans are aware of this day or movement. After all, we are still using antiquated concepts of pounds and feet.  We are befuddled when anyone speaks to us in the metric system. American exceptionalism demonstrates its vaulting heights and parochial quaintness. 

Had I remained a historian, I might have left my thoughts there. Venturing into information technologies gained me another perspective. Almost 15 years into this work, standards are increasingly my go-to in IT policy, cloud computing contract formation — information privacy, security and accessibility especially. All three areas rest on the more fundamental TCP/IP standards (transmission control protocol/internet protocol), or the foundational data networking protocols. That engineers, computer scientists, software developers, and network operators are moving standards up the proverbial stack makes developmental sense. It is increasingly how we do business internationally.  Policy makers may be slower on the take, as the European Court of Justice’s Schrem case revealed when the decision sent the U.S./EU Safe Harbor about personal data into a tailspin. Those challenges should not prompt despair but inspire hope for the harmonization of information privacy and security practices and rules in a global information economy.

Nothing demonstrates this significance better than accessibility. Ponder the thought: standards exist that level the playing field among users of the Internet.  Those standards bring the difference in experience between an “abled” and a “disabled” person’s interaction with these technologies down, in some cases, to a negligible or largely inconsequential degree. To be sure, given the dynamic nature of both medical science and technology, the targets shift.  Cognitive disabilities were once not even considered as a candidate for accommodation; now these disabilities are now at the forefront. Likewise, mobile technologies have raised the bar.  Developers have risen consistently to the occasion in keeping with these discoveries and technical innovations. What arguments could possibly stand in the way of achieving the public policy goal of meeting the needs of people with disabilities?

There are many, unfortunately, and so I shall take up a few with which I have become familiar over the years. “Standards will bring all [fill in the blank: discovery, innovation, research] to a halt.” When a full professor in engineering made this statement to me some time ago, it stopped me in my tracks. I was a director of IT policy, and attempting to vet an accessibility policy through a large, research university (yes, the one far above Cayuga’s waters …). My first, good Catholic girl from the other side-of-the-tracks reflexively thought: “I am so sorry!  I would never want to do that!  How could I be so stupid!” Time and experience has revealed that fear and ignorance rested on the other foot. “We don’t have the money for that!” How sad, I now think, that a large, well-endowed university would say that. “We don’t know how to do it.” Sadder still. Some of the smartest, innovative students, faculty and staff in the world populate that place. “We don’t have to do it, section 508 doesn’t apply to us.” Really, you are taking a passive aggressive approach? “Why do we have to conform to something that only a few people need?”  Not only is this thought a short-sighted argument against self-interest given that one never knows our own individual fates that might include accidents or illness, it is also gratuitously callous. “We don’t have time for your ideas.” I saved my favorite for last.

None of these arguments are persuasive. But don’t take my word for it. Look at the law.  In educational settings, the Rehabilitation Act remains in effect, which requires accommodation for students. Section 508 is the well-known standard. The higher education community should stand in support of its proposed refresh. Moreover, that community should not cause a person with a disability to wait for the specific accommodation when standards exist to provide them with an equitable experience in advance of a request. Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) similarly speaks to higher education across the board, both public and private. Case law has definitively demonstrated that information technologies are within its scope.  Title I of that Act has already gone through administrative law’s notice and comment to instantiate W3C 2.0 AA. Titles II and III are next. Why wait?

That’s chapter and verse. Let me get back to the main point. Reasonable standards are how the Internet exists. Let’s move those standards up the stack to information privacy and security and accessibility.  If these areas are moving targets, we can work with them.  And bring efficiency and justice along with us. 



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