Monday, February 18, 2008

Web security feature may be problematic for screen reader users

A web site administrator recently advised me about a security feature of web page design that poses a potential problem for blind computer users like myself, who use a screen reader to access the internet. The security feature lies in hidden links on a web page, designed to trap the malicious robots that are trolling the internet for content and email addresses to harvest. However, the problem is that the same traps that grab the robots, or bots, also look like clickable links to screen readers and could land the unknowing blind computer user in a virtual never-never land on a site that was previously a prized and valuable resource.

Theoretically, the way it works is that once the bot sees the link and clicks it, it is entered into a blocked database. From that time forward, that computer will only see blank pages whenever it returns to that web site.

And, this doesn’t interfere with sighted computer users, as the visual representation of the “bot trap” is almost unnoticeable on the screen, as they are hidden links and are only one pixel in size.

That’s all well and good for trapping the bots, but the problem arises for blind computer users who rely on the screen reading software, like JAWS or Window Eyes, to let them know which items on a page are links and which are not. So, while I’m going down a web page, and there is a link that JAWS identifies that sounds like it has some content I might be interested in, it might just as well be a trap. If I click that link out of curiosity, I could lose the ability to have access to any of the information on all the pages on that entire web site.

I consider myself pretty savvy on assistive technology in general and screen readers in particular, but this is something I have never heard about before. As a result, I’m posting about it here for anybody who might have some feedback.

Any thoughts?

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