This Company Taped AI for its Website — and Landed in Court

Automating work by following guidelines can make the web more welcoming. But more than 600 accessibility experts have put their names up a document requesting website operators not to use such automation tools, including AccessiBe. Signatories include contributors to the W3C guidelines and employees of Microsoft, Apple, and Google. “Automatic detection and fixing of accessibility problems is not reliable enough to make a site work,” according to the document, which accuses some vendors of “fraudulent marketing.”

The site was started by Karl Groves, founder of accessibility consultancy, who provided a 35 -page analysis of AccessiBe’s software in Murphy’s case against Eyebobs. Groves said he surveyed a total of about 1,000 pages from 50 websites using startup technology and found a median of 2,300 violations of W3C guidelines for each site. Groves says that’s a significant undercount, since most of the instructions can only be reviewed by expert, manual analysis. “Artificial intelligence has never acted like that,” he said.

In his report on AccessiBe, Groves cited a picture of a model wearing a white dress being sold on an ecommerce site. The alternative text provided, apparently created by AccessiBe technology, is “Grass nature and summer.” In other cases, he reports, AccessiBe has failed to properly add labels to forms and buttons.

On the homepage of its website, AccessiBe promises “automatic web access.” but supporting documents warn customers that its machine learning technology may not accurately interpret parts of the webpage if it “has not encountered these elements before.”

AccessiBe’s community relations manager, Joshua Basile, says that since he joined the company earlier this year it has become more involved with disability advocacy groups and clarified that it offers “manual remediation” along with automated fix. “It’s an evolving technology and we’re evolving and getting better,” he said.

In a statement, AccessiBe’s head of marketing, Gil Magen, said the company checked the Eyebobs website and found that it complied with accessibility standards. AccessiBe offered clients litigation assistance but Eyebobs declined, the statement said.

In its own statement, Eyebobs said AccessiBe failed to respond to requests for meetings with its attorneys and provided responses in the form “assuring us of our compliance with the web.” Eyebobs will no longer work with AccessiBe nor will we in the future.

Even if the Eyebobs settlement, which ends next year, does not include a claim that its site has problems, the company will have to pay for an external expert audit and dedicate one or more staff access work. “Eyebobs is committed to complying with the ADA and supporting all visitors who come to our website,” said marketing director Megan McMoInau.

Haben Girma, a deafblind disability rights lawyer, says he hopes the Eyebobs suit will discourage companies from using AccessiBe or similar tools. He believes tech companies or regulators like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should take action against improper marketing of access devices. “Governments, Google, and social media companies can stop the spread of misinformation,” he said.

Experts critical of automated accessibility tools don’t often argue that the technology is completely worthless. Instead they say that placing too much reliance on software risks causing damage.

A 2018 paper of W3C employees praised the potential of using AI to help people with poor vision or other needs but also warned of its limitations. It focuses on a Facebook project using machine learning to create text descriptions for images posted by users as an example. The system won an award from the American Foundation for the Blind in 2017. But its definitions can be difficult to interpret. Sassy Outwater-Wright, director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, notes that the system sometimes shows concern over body parts— “two people standing, beard, feet, outside, water” —which she calls and “beard trouble. . ”

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