Both public and private websites face major content challenges over the next two years after the US Department of Justice (DoJ) announced that it aims to change the rules that govern the application of the 20-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to websites and website content.

The recently published Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looks set to make website compliance with the ADA law rather than ‘desirable’ -- the status it has had until now.

If it passes into law in its current form, it will mean that all federal and local government websites will have to meet a technical standard known as Level AA of Version 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the guidelines published by W3C that outline web accessibility standards for websites.

The DoJ, where it currently has the power to enforce ADA stipulations, can demand penalties of up to US $55,000 for a first offense, and US$ 110,000 for any subsequent offenses.

What the Government Proposes

Leaving aside the fact that a website should be accessible to all, and the huge business market made-up of millions of people with disabilities, this is only the opening salvo in a potential dispute that is likely to run and run.

The proposal is that all public websites and many private websites should fall under the proposed legislation. Of particular interest to businesses with a heavy web presence, or those that are present exclusively online is the current ADA requirement that “places of public accommodation” be accessible to disabled people.

Under the “place of accommodation” are included businesses like hotels, retail stores, cinemas, concert halls and banks. However, it could also include websites like Amazon.

Exclusions to Legislation

In a case the DoJ cited in the recent proposed rule change, it said that “the Department's brief explained that a business providing services solely over the Internet is subject to the ADA´s prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of disability.”

However, the DoJ has stopped just short of trying to regulate all American websites. It says it is specifically concerned with “the goods and services” of public accommodation expressed across the web.

It specifically rules out requests by some sectors that the entire internet itself be viewed as a “public place of accommodation”, as well as “content created or posted by website users for personal, non-commercial use.”

It also executes content placed on websites by third parties as long as the website owners make the websites themselves accessible.

Rule Change Timetable

Needless to say, it’s the DoJ, so nothing is going to happen quickly. In order to gauge the reaction of the web community and in particular the cost to businesses, it has posed a series of 19 questions to the public and is asking those “who have a stake in ensuring that the websites of public accommodations and public entities are accessible to people with disabilities” to contribute to the debate.

Contributors have until January 24th next to make their points and contribute to the public hearings that it will be holding before legislation is actually introduced.

Once the final rules have been published, new websites that are covered by the act will have six months to comply. Existing websites will have two years to comply.

If you want to participate, or check out the 19 public questions posed by the DoJ, you can find out more here.