05 August 2013 By Graeme Philipson
Australian consumer and disability organisations have begun a campaign to reduce the use of CAPTCHA, the annoying visual tests used by websites to prove users are human.
Don’t you hate it when you are confronted with those distorted characters when you try to register on a website? They are generated by a technology called CAPTCHA, a contrived acronym for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’.
These tests are annoying to most of us, but very difficult for the vision impaired. The character strings are often illegible, but their use is very common – you often need to identify them before you can transact on the web, post online messages, sign up to Internet services like Skype and Gmail, or even to access online government services or contact elected officials.
They are designed to protect websites against exploitation by spammers, but hundreds of thousands of Australians who are blind or vision impaired are typically locked out of engaging with sites that use CAPTCHA because they – or their screen reader software – are unable to read the skewed and confusing text.
A new “kill CAPTCHA” petition on Change.org has already received dozens of signatures from people affected by the inaccessibility of CAPTCHA, and many have published moving reasons for signing on the site.
Telecommunications consumer group the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has now joined with groups such as Blind Citizens Australia, Media Access Australia, Able Australia and the Australian Deafblind Council to call on organisations to phase out the use of CAPTCHA.
“CAPTCHA makes relatively simple tasks such as creating a Skype or Google Gmail account next to impossible for some and a major ordeal for others,” said ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin. ”Even people without disability find them frustrating. Consumers with and without disability hate them. CAPTCHAs fundamentally fail to properly recognise people with disability as human.”
The official web standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), has said CAPTCHA excludes people with disability. It proposes several alternative methods of proving web users are human. (http://www.w3.org/TR/turingtest/).
W3C, in an article titled Inaccessibility of CAPTCHA, wrote: “The widespread use of CAPTCHA in low-volume, low-resource sites is unnecessarily damaging to the experience of users with disabilities. An explicitly inaccessible access control mechanism should not be promoted as a solution, especially when other systems exist that are not only more accessible, but may be more effective as well.”
The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are considered international best practice in web accessibility, and have been endorsed under the Disability Discrimination Act. In addition to guidelines around CAPTCHA, they provide comprehensive guidance on building accessible websites.
There are numerous alternatives to CATCHA, including email activation links. This achieves a similar outcome without the need to try and visually decipher strange characters and font styles, which can be challenging for everyone.
In 2000 the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission ruled that Bruce Maguire, who is blind, had been directly discriminated against by the Sydney organising committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) because the committee did not did make the Sydney Olympic Games website accessible.
A user experience consultancy expert recently told the BBC that CAPTCHA was “generally speaking one of the most hated pieces of user interaction on the web”. Spammers and other online miscreants have long ago figured out how to defeat CAPTCHA, nullifying their usefulness.
Audio CAPTCHAs were introduced to make them more accessible to people with disability but these are just as inaccessible as the visual version. “My experience with audio CAPTCHA has been almost as inaccessible as visual CAPTCHA
“I must have listened to the Skype audio CAPTCHA 20 times before I gave up and asked my sighted friend to set up my account,” said ACCAN disability policy advisor Wayne Hawkins, who is blind.
In many instances locking out consumers with CAPTCHA is done unintentionally. For instance, it is found on the contact forms on the websites of politicians and the ACMA’s Do Not Call Register online form.
“The World Wide Web Consortium has declared CAPTCHA inaccessible and offers several better alternatives that can be used to tell humans and bots apart, so there is no excuse for the continued use of this technology,” Corbin said.
These and related issues will be discussed on 14-15 August at ACCAN and Telstra’s M-Enabling Australasia 2013 conference in Sydney (www.regonline.com.au/m-enabling), which is about making technology more accessible for the millions of Australians with disability.
Dr Scott Hollier, a project manager with Media Access Australia who is blind, said the use of CAPTCHA by organisations may contravene the Disability Discrimination Act. “According to the ABS almost 5000 baby boomers turn 65 in Australia every day and as they age, age-related disability increases steeply,” said Dr Hollier.
“Not making apps, websites and other technology accessible for this market is not only morally wrong but bad for business as well.”
Greg Madson, vice-president of Blind Citizens Australia, said CAPTCHA isolated and disenfranchised large sections of the population. “CAPTCHAs are extremely difficult for people with vision impairment to identify and impossible for people who use screen reading software which assists people who are blind to independently navigate a computer,” said Madson. “There is nothing more annoying than setting up an online account only to be stopped dead in your tracks by an inaccessible CAPTCHA, whether it be visual or audio.”
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Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire and editor of sister publication CommsWire. He is also founder and Research Director of Connection Research, a market research and analysis firm specialising in the convergence of sustainable, digital and environmental technologies. He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.