Accessibility obligations for websites, apps and other IT tools
Published on 21st Oct 2022
Law no. 4 of 9 January 2004, as amended ("Provisions to favour and simplify the access of users and, in particular, of persons with disabilities to IT tools", so-called Stanca Law, "Law") provides for obligations regarding the accessibility of IT tools, including websites and mobile applications. These obligations, previously applicable only to public sector bodies, from 5 November are applicable also to certain private entities ("Entities").
Since its adoption, the Law has been amended several times, also in the light of new EU law, most recently in particular, by virtue of Directive (EU) 2016/2102 on the accessibility of websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies which has harmonised the legal framework on accessibility at European level ("Directive").
What is this all about?
According to the Law, websites and mobile applications are considered 'accessible' if they are 'perceivable, operable, understandable and robust' (article 3-bis, para. 1 of the Law).
Services provided via IT systems, including websites, mobile applications, hardware, software and non-web documents, are considered 'accessible' if they satisfy both the following requirements:
- accessibility of the content of the service by the user; and
- usability of the information offered, where usability means (i) easy and simple use, also ensuring that the actions performed to obtain services and information are always uniform; (ii) efficiency in use, also ensuring the split between content, display and mode of operation of the interfaces, as well as the possibility of making the information available through different sensory channels (iii) effectiveness in use and compliance with the user's needs, also ensuring that the actions performed to obtain services and information are independent of the device used to access them; (iv) enjoyability in use, also ensuring, access to the service and information without unjustified distress or constraints for the user (article 3-bis, para 2 of the Law).
The Law provides for some exceptions to the applicability of the accessibility rules: i.e. where compliance with accessibility requirements would entail a disproportionate burden, or where the websites and mobile applications are only designed for closed groups of users, for intranet and extranet networks, or for private Entities whose turnover is below the threshold provided by the Law (see 'To whom do the new obligations apply?').
A disproportionate burden is a disproportionate organisational or financial burden on the Entities. It is also defined as a burden that impairs their ability to fulfil their intended purpose or to publish information necessary or relevant to their tasks and services. The concept takes into account the likely benefit or harm that would result for citizens and, in particular, persons with disabilities. The time needed to develop websites and mobile applications cannot constitute a disproportionate burden (article 3-ter of the Law).
The detailed technical requirements on accessibility are identified in special guidelines issued by the Agency for Digital Italy (Agenzia per l'Italia Digitale, AgID) pursuant to article 11 of the Law ("Guidelines").
These Guidelines also include:
- a model accessibility statement (see 'To whom do the new obligations apply?'),
- the circumstances that would impose a disproportionate burden on the Entities,
- the common methodology to test the conformity of websites and mobile application contents with the applicable requirements and to monitor it.
To whom do the accessibility obligations apply?
The accessibility obligations were initially conceived exclusively for public sector bodies but have now been extended (as the European legislator encouraged in recital 34 of the Directive) to private Entities that offer facilities and services which are open or provided to the public, with an average turnover over the last three years of more than Euro 500 million p.a.
Neither the Law nor the Guidelines specify how the turnover requirement should be interpreted. The requirement appears unclear, in particular, when it comes to Entities which offer goods and services in several jurisdictions: in fact, it is unclear whether the turnover refers to sales/transactions carried out in the Italian territory or addressed to Italian users, or to all international sales/transactions.
When do the new obligations apply?
According to article 4, para 2-bis of the Law, Entities to which the Law applies must bring their websites and mobile applications into conformity by 5 November 2022. However, this provision does not cover services provided by means of such IT tools, although it seems reasonable to argue that the 5 November deadline also applies to such services, which would otherwise not be subject to any deadline for compliance.
How to comply with the obligations?
A. Ensure IT systems conform
Entities are obliged to make service provided by means of IT tools, including websites and mobile applications, accessible in accordance with the Guidelines, unless one of the exceptions applies (see 'What is this all about?').
Depending on whether websites, mobile applications, software, hardware and non-IT tools are concerned, there are different technical requirements to which the Guidelines make reference, as in any case detailed within the harmonised UNI CEI EN 301549 standard. These rules have been officially recognised at EU level as a 'harmonised standard for websites and mobile applications' by European Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2018/2048, as subsequently amended by Implementing Decision (EU) 2021/1339, according to which version no. 3.2.1 (2021-03) of the UNI CEI EN 301549 standard applies.
As far as websites are concerned, the Guidelines refer to the website accessibility requirements contained in another document, namely the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Compliance with WCAG 2.1, level AA "is equivalent to conformity with all paragraphs from 9.1 to 9.4 and with requirements under paragraph 9.6 of the UNI CEI EN 301549 standard" (see, paragraph 2.2 of the Guidelines).
B. Accessibility statement (only for websites and apps)
Entities are also required to fill in an accessibility statement on the compliance of their websites and mobile applications, based on the model accessibility template made available by AgID. The statement can only be completed using the online tool available at https://form.agid.gov.it.
The statement must be completed for each of the websites and mobile applications falling under the scope of the Law and must be published on the website of the Entity. Entities are required to update the statement on a regular basis (article 3-quater of the Law).
The accessibility statement contains:
- general information on the website or the mobile application;
- information on the compliance status of the website or the mobile application;
- an explanation concerning those parts of the content that are not accessible, and the reasons for their inaccessibility;
- a description of, and a link to, a feedback mechanism enabling any person to notify the Entity concerned of any failure of its website or mobile application
- the link to an enforcement procedure (on the AgID website) to which recourse may be had (namely, to a digital ombudsman) in the event of an unsatisfactory response or in case of failure to respond within 30 days.
Additionally, Entities "may not enter into contracts for the creation and modification of websites and mobile applications if they do not provide that websites and mobile applications must comply with the accessibility requirements laid down by the guidelines (...)". Likewise, contracts already in force that do not provide for compliance with accessibility requirements must be amended accordingly in the event of their renewal, amendment or novation (article 4, para. 2 of the Law).
Underlying principles and the future of accessibility
The Law aims at ensuring that persons with different kinds of disabilities have equal access to services provided via IT tools.
Accessibility is one of the three pillars of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted on 13 December 2006, to which both Italy and the European Union are parties. The other two pillars are:
(i) the "reasonable accommodation", i.e. the necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. This principle has been partly transposed in the Directive (article 5) and in the Law (article 3-ter), where exemptions to the application of accessibility requirements are provided, based on the principle of reasonableness, namely, where they impose a disproportionate burden (see section 'What is this all about?');
(ii) "universal design", i.e. the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.
The principle of universal design will be implemented when the new European legislation on accessibility, i.e. Directive (EU) 2019/882 on the accessibility requirements for products and services, becomes applicable, starting from 28 June 2025. This Directive has been already transposed in Italy by means of Legislative Decree no. 82 of 27 May 2022.
Who enforces the accessibility obligations?
AgID is entrusted to enforce the Law and to issue sanctions where it finds that an Entity has failed to comply with the provisions of the Law and the Guidelines. AgID has the power to carry out a preliminary investigation and, where it finds a breach of the applicable provision, sets a deadline for the Entity to remedy such breach.
In the event of non-compliance with AgID's formal notice, it may issue a fine of up to 5% of the Entity's turnover.