This Company Tapped AI for Its Website—and Landed in Court

Anthony Murphy, a visually impaired man from Erie, Pennsylvania visited Eyebobs' website last year using screen reader software. The page's content was read by the synthesized voice. It also displayed navigation buttons and menus. Eyebobs used artificial Intelligence software from Israeli startup AccessiBe, which promised that its website would be easier to use for people with disabilities. Murphy discovered it made things more difficult.
AccessiBe claims it can make websites more accessible for people with impaired vision and other disabilities by replacing a costly manual process with automated state-of the-art AI technology. Murphy filed a lawsuit against Eyebobs in January alleging that the retailer did not provide equal access to its services to screen readers. AccessiBe, which is not a party to the suit, also claimed that AccessiBe's technology doesn't work as promised.

Eyebobs reached a settlement with Murphy in October. It denied Murphy's allegations, but it agreed to hire an accessibility consultant and devote staff to the issue. AccessiBe, like many AI startups claims that its technology is cheaper than hiring humans. By court order, eyebobs must now pay people.

Eyebobs' lawsuit is one of many recent cases in which companies are being accused of violating web accessibility standards. There are many AI technology solutions available, but accessibility advocates have raised concerns that they don't work.

This case is a rare example where a company could face legal consequences for betting on AI technology. This list is only likely to increase. Machine learning has made it easier for companies to trust algorithms. However, the technology can sometimes be slow.

Machine learning excels in narrowly defined problems, under constant and unvarying conditions. Unpredictable environments are often the most important and interesting challenges in the world. In these situations, human judgments are far superior to machines.

Facebook claims that its algorithms will combat harmful content. However, there is mounting evidence from within Facebook, as well as internal documents, that this problem is not being addressed. One of the most difficult challenges in this field is to make sense of the subtleties and context-specific language. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation in August into a series crash where Tesla vehicles, using its highly-prized automated driving system, struck parked emergency vehicles. While machine vision is improving, algorithms aren't getting sleepy and people are still better at understanding complex physical situations.

Although online accessibility is less well-known than self-driving vehicles, technologists are using AI to make it easier. AccessiBe is a tech provider that companies are turning to as a result of the rising tide of accessibility lawsuits.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in daily activities like shopping and working. It doesn't mention the internet. It was passed in 1990, which was also the year that the first webpage was published at CERN. However, courts have recently opened the doors to civil suits. They argue that websites are "places for public accommodation" and have seen a rise in cases. According to UsableNet, an accessibility tool maker, there were 3550 such cases in the US in 2020, up 50 percent from 2018. Murphy has also filed similar suits to the one against Eyebobs.

"There is an untapped potential of AI to drive and scale up accessibility in digital technology, but it must be done carefully and judiciously," Judy Brewer, director, W3C accessibility Initiative

The US Supreme Court refused to hear a Domino's Pizza appeal against a lower court's ruling that Domino's Pizza's website and app had to comply with accessibility guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. This case and others have provided W3C guidelines authority that is similar to law.

These guidelines provide best practices for digitally accommodating people who have visual impairments. The precepts, which run to over 100 pages when printed include clear contrast and color use; providing alternative text for images or video; and making sure that forms and menus can be accessed using only a keyboard.