Fri, 19 Sep 2008

Government Browser Standards consultation

10 September 2008

Dear Sirs

Re: Web site accessibility and “browser standards draft”

I fear there is a fundamentally incorrect assumption behind your consultation document on web site accessibility in the guise of “browser compatibility”.

I agree with the premise of your consultation, that Government and other web site owners should be assured that their sites will be accessible using all commonly used browsers, and on special browsers designed for the impaired.

However I believe this aim, of correct display on the most commonly used browsers, may be better achieved by ensuring adherence to the underlying standards which all conforming browsers – the majority – implement. This as distinct from creating something which “works” on particular browsers by quirk, rather than because it is correctly designed and programmed.

However this latter “design by quirk” is a major risk of recommending that web sites just developed by testing with the majority browsers, rather than requiring that the job be done to accepted and common interoperability standards – those for HTML, XML, and ECMAscript (Javascript). These standards are clear, public, and universally accepted as defining the means of correct interoperability, and they are backed up by freely available validation software.

As a result it is a simple matter to ensure that the web site output is correct and interoperable. This can be done as a routine part of development, even automatically, thus keeping costs down. Full browser compatibility checks can of course still be done but will be less necessary; for day to day use a check with one standards compliant browser will assure compliance with them all.

Your example in Appendix A supposes that every office of Government would have to review every function of every web site some six times, not a task likely to enthuse the tester and not one which is likely to be performed to consistent standards by the time the tester gets to the fifth or sixth browser. I would agree that reviewing your work on a browser is an essential part of the development cycle, but you will appreciate that reviewing every feature of a site by a human on each of four or five browsers, to ensure that it looks right and works right, is not a task that it is efficient to do very often.

By ensuring web site output that is compliant to standards, as a regular intermediate validation step in web site production, you can be assured that as browser standards also strive towards compliance, you and the browser developers are working towards common goals of interoperability.

Another risk of just “developing to browser standards” rather than “developing to interoperable standards” is that browsers come and go and so do their quirks.

It is likely that some Government web sites may be in service for several years without any functional change being needed. It is inefficient to rewrite every site just to produce new output should vendor A, for instance, release a new version of Outernet Exploder which rewrites the rules on the quirks for “most common browser”. However even Outernet Exploder is very likely to have a “standards” mode, which can be invoked just by making the correct declaration of standards compatibility in the web site output.

A third benefit of building web sites to standards is that most if not all browsers for the impaired actually use the interoperable web standards in order to function. These standards define ways to provide alternative renderings as needed, and if you work to the standards, you are automatically as functional as possible, whether it is for Lynx or a special browser for impaired needs.

This can be as simple as providing meaningful “alt” texts on images, and destination titles and descriptions on hyperlinks, or provision of audio alternatives via standard HTML tags, or can help full cross-device compatibility by ensuring that all active (Javascript or Java) content also has HTML form-based alternatives available for those browsing on restricted devices.

Again this can all be achieved and verified by the use of public validation tools as a regular and integrated part of web site development procedures.

Use of common standards also aids in reorganisations. By means of CSS, two quite dissimilar web sites can be made to resemble one another without loss of function. I have made such a merge in my own web site between two web site production software tools, and because they both produce compliant HTML, it is simple to split the functions of my web site between them and still achieve a common look and user interface. I can also easily choose to keep formerly functional URLs in use as aliases, even when I reorganise the outer pages of my site to reflect the owner's changing priorities, as Government web sites will assuredly also have to do.

I believe this would be a major advantage in combatting “link rot” in Government web sites – something which has recently plagued my own use of the reorganised Disability Discrimination web sites, having invalidated all references from outside web sites as well as my extensive collection of Disability Discrimination bookmarks from prior to the reorganisation.

Finally, by mandating conformance to testable standards, work can safely be tendered out if desired, to strictly comparable cost bases, and still easily verified as meeting acceptance criteria.

In this way all users can be quite sure that your site will work correctly in any browser they choose, leading to user choice and empowerment, and your commitment to widest user availability is demonstrated to the widest possible audience.

In its present form I cannot agree at all with the Browser Standards Draft, and I hope you will give serious consideration to the points stated above.

Yours faithfully

Thu, 27 Mar 1997

Porn is just keystrokes away

The following is a comparison of the text of the printed version of an article which appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, 27th March 1997, with the electronic version of the same story. They are reproduced here without permission under the Fair Use provisions of the Berne Convention, being a small excerpt from the original newspaper made for the purpose of fair comment and discussion. The discussion will appear in Usenet newsgroups alt.censorship, and uk.politics.censorship. All ownerships, rights and copyrights acknowledged. The online version was published in the Electronic Telegraph on the 27th March 1997, although for some reason the Telegraph have now removed their older online archives.

In my opinion, the diffences are such as to turn the printed version into a worthless scare story, designed to make those who are not net-literate imagine that the Internet is awash with porn which one stumbles over at every step, and that nothing is being done to control it. Note especially how explanatory and contextual material in the electronic version had been removed from the printed one, whilst several paragraphs of description of pornography have been added to the latter, giving a wholly different implication to the surrounding text.

Filth or freedom of speech ? Hugo Gurdon talks to an American group trying to clean up the Net

You are 13-years-old and your english teacher sets an essay on Little Women, the novel by Louisa May Alcott. You have heard that the Internet is the greatest advance in education since the pencil sharpener, so you tap out Little Women on your keyboard, click your mouse and find... what?

Printed version

Electronic version

Persian Kitty's jumpstation - a pornograhpy catalogue with words, pictures and a price list for those items which are not offered free. Here is a sample: Muscle Hunk Gallery - 40 pictures; Slutboys - gay video conferencing; Secrets of Speed Seduction - free "get laid" newsletters; and Cybersex toys. Oh, and finally you see Persian Kitty's purrfect pose of the week, in which two not so little women disport themselves. Persian Kitty's Adult Links! - a pornography catalogue featuring Persian Kitty's purrfect pose of the week, in which two not so little women disport themselves.
Most of this, of course, has nothing to do with little women, let alone Little Women, but the error can eaily be understood. Access to sexual or indecent material on the Internet is often just an innocent search away.

The results of such searches vary, of course, depending on the search engine in use. Excite threw up the sex site on the second page of the search results. Alta Vista, on the other hand, listed so many genuine Alcott Little Women sites that you would have got very bored if you were searching for porn. Yahoo (UK & Ireland version) inexplicably listed 40Plus - erotic videos of mature English women - as its first site.

The fact very few of the Web sites found in this way show anything more revealing than many UK daily newspapers sport on their covers or page three every day of the week, or that the images take an age to download even with a very fast connection, or even that in order to see anything remotely hardcore you have to enter credit card details and other identity verification is, for many people, not the point. Access to sexual or indecent material on the Internet is often just an innocent search away.

I was the 2,710,790th person to visit Persian Kitty's website. One of the others was Allison Evans, of Fairfax, Virginia, the 13-year-old researching that troublesome school essay.

Allison described some of the things she saw when surfing the Net as "yuk". Her mother, Doris, agreed and took the case to the Enough is Enough lobby group, which is campaigning to shield children from pornography on the Internet.

This group subsists on £500,000 a year from private donations and is run by seven mothers and grandmothers. Yet it is embroiled in the US Supreme Court in what may be the most important free speech trial in decades.

Last year, the Communications Decency Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. The new Act made it illegal to send "indecent" or "patently offensive" material on the Net to children under 18, and imposed penalties of two years' jail or a $250,000 (£150,000) fine on anyone who did.

Enough is Enough supports this Act and is fighting to have it enforced. But the law is at present suspended - because of fears that it breaches America's constitutional protection of free speech - while the Supreme Court examines the issue.

Jerry Berman, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, a lobby opposing Enough is Enough, says that if this Act is enforced, it will not just control pornography but "destroy the Internet as we know it".

American law does not apply globally, but since more than half of all daily Web use is inside the US, the Communications Decency Act would de facto dictate what appears on the information superhighway.

However, supporters of the Act wonder how it can be democratic for the will of Congress and the majority of Americans to be set aside so that porn purveyors can practise unimpeded.

And many reject the view that the First Amendment is an absolute protection against censorship. Constitutional "speech", they say, involves the exchange of ideas, not the exchange of smutty pictures, and freedom of speech is not - or should not be - the same as freedom to corrupt minors.

Printed version

Electronic version

According to Enough is Enough, Allison Evans's experience is typical. Monique Nelson, the West Coast organiser of the group, recalls many other examples, including one where a child typed in "toys" and was offered thousands of sexual aids.

"It is not only children having easy access to pornography which is a problem," she adds, "but also paedophiles having easy access to children. Kids have been lured by adults through the Internet."

According to Enough is Enough, Allison Evans's experience is typical. Monique Nelson, the West Coast organiser of the group, said: "It is not only children having easy access to pornography which is a problem," she adds, "but also paedophiles having easy access to children. Kids have been lured by adults through the Internet."
The Justice Department argues that those who post information on the Internet must not be allowed to do so irresponsibly. It wants the Internet to be treated like book shops, which can retail pornography but are forbidden to sell it to minors. The case for imposing restrictions on those who post pages on the Internet has strengthened since the Act was signed last year. This is because inexpensive new technology has made it possible for electronic barriers to be put up around selected material, to prevent children having access. Thus it is feasible for a government to oblige porn providers to sell their wares only behind childproof screens, rather as local authorities use planning permission to concentrate strip joints in red light districts.

Printed version

Electronic version

If the Supreme Court rules that electronic red light districts are constitutional, fewer will wander down the wrong dark alleys - as I did with my two-year-old daughter, Molly.

Her name alone sparked off 33,299 Internet offerings. It was the fourth which suggested why some controls are needed.

"Up in the room," ran the teaser on the screen, "Mike figured that he had better take the lead because Molly was shy, so he began to take off his shirt ..."

  • In the UK, police and Government are already putting pressure on Internet suppliers to clean up the Net. Meanwhile, worried parents can install programs which stop children downloading pornography. This software works by scanning for key phrases or by scanning all incoming material for offensive images. Children should be told never to give out their address or telephone on the Net.
Interestingly, if Allison Evans were to type 'Communications Decency Act' into her Internet search engine she would have found hundreds and hundres of Web pages discussing the issues raised by Internet censorship - and not a pixel of porn in sight.

This arrangement of the Daily Telegraph text is copyright © N.J.Leverton, 1997. Licence is hereby granted for not-for-profit reproduction in electronic or printed media, including mirroring of this page, subject to respect of the Daily Telegraph's and the author's own rights. For commercial republication of this arrangement in any medium please email Nick Leverton at