Out-Law News 2 min. read

Banks, energy providers and public bodies should be subject to web accessibility rules, vote MEPs

Banks, energy companies and electronic communication network and service providers are among the businesses that would be subject to new EU rules on website accessibility, under plans backed by MEPs.

The European Parliament voted to approve plans for a new EU Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies' websites earlier this week. The rules as backed by the Parliament would require public sector bodies and businesses that perform certain "public tasks" to ensure that everyone has access to the content on their websites and the full functionality on offer on those sites.

The websites of organisations deemed to be performing 'public tasks' is set out in the proposals and includes the websites of network service providers, which covers companies selling gas, heat and electricity, as well as those providing electronic communication network and services. In addition the websites of businesses offering basic banking or insurance services would also be subject to the regime, alongside those delivering transport-related, education or health services, among others.

In addition, the mobile versions of those websites would also have to be capable of delivering content and functionality to all. User-generated content displayed on the websites subject to the MEPs' proposals would also have to be accessible to all.

Under the proposals, EU member states would be obliged to "take the necessary measures" to ensure that the websites subject to the new Directive are accessible "in a consistent and adequate way for users' autonomous perception, navigation, operation, interaction, readability and understanding, including adaptability of content presentation, when necessary, providing an accessible electronic alternative".

They would also need to ensure the websites are made accessible "in a way which ensures interoperability with a broad variety of user agents and assistive technologies at Union and international level".

A user agent is defined as "any software that retrieves and presents web contents for users, including web browsers, media players, plug-ins, and other programs that help in retrieving, rendering, and interacting with web content, regardless of the type of device used to interact with content, including mobile devices".

In addition, the websites would also have be made accessible "through a universal design approach", which would mean they would need to be designed in a way that allows, "to the greatest extent possible", everyone to use the "products, environments, programmes and services" designed "without the need for adaptation or specialised design".

Plans for the new Directive were initially put forward by the European Commission in December 2012 in an effort to ensure every EU citizen, including the elderly and disabled, could use online public services. The amendments backed by MEPs' are subject to change, as the finalised regime will not be set until the Parliament and the EU's Council of Ministers, which contains representatives from individual EU member states, reach agreement on the wording.

The Parliament said that 167 million people living in the EU currently have problems accessing public websites and using online public services. It said just a third of the 761,000 public sector websites in the EU currently conform to "international web-accessibility standards". Compliance with those standards allows users to "enlarge texts and images", mean that videos are adapted with "sign language" and that websites can be navigated using keyboards alone, for example, it said.

Organisations whose websites would be subject to the new rules would have one year from the introduction of the new laws to ensure that new content added to their sites complies with the new rules. They would have three years within which to adapt existing content and five years if that content is "live audio".

"In our increasingly digital world, accessibility is very much a human right," MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, rapporteur to the Parliament on the draft Directive, said in a statement. "All people are entitled to use the internet in order to exercise their fundamental rights." 

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