YouTube wants you to tell on publishers without closed captions

YouTube (s GOOG) reached out to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community with an interesting proposition a few days ago: The site is asking users to let them know about publishers whose videos don’t have any subtitles, but should. The initiative comes in response to a FCC rule that came into effect earlier this month, mandating that all content that previously aired on TV has to have captions online.

Users who are so inclined can use a special web form to notify YouTube about videos without captions. The site will then notify the publisher about the complaint, and forward any answer to the user. YouTube does warn users that the abuse of the form can result in the termination of their account, and a spokesperson wasn’t able to tell me whether complaints will actually lead to any tangible action against non-complying publishers.

It’s the law

This kind of procedure is YouTube’s response to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama in October of 2010, as well as some mandates put in place by the FCC earlier this year. Both force video sites to display captions for any video content that has previously aired on TV, as long as it hasn’t been substantially edited for online use. In other words: A whole segment of the evening news has to have subtitles, a online-only highlights reel doesn’t.

YouTube isn’t the only one scrambling to make sure that the content it hosts is compliant with the new rules. Amazon started adding closed captions to some of its Instant streaming content this week, and both Hulu and Netflix (s NFLX) have been working for a while on adding captions to the videos they’re hosting.

In dealing with these issues, the companies find themselves often in a weird bind: The provisions that came into effect last week treat them as distributors, and put the burden on programmers to actually provide them with captions in the first place. However, some of that content simply doesn’t come with captions. Other videos aren’t covered by the same rules because they never aired on TV, or didn’t air in the U.S – but viewers obviously expect a consistent experience.

Most video sites are working on captions

That’s why most of the major players have invested significant resources into their own captioning efforts. YouTube added automatic captioning to its videos three years ago, and has since made it easier for publishers to add captions to their clips.

Netflix recently started to work with the captioning provider Amara to experiment with a crowd-sourced approach that would allow the company to add more captions to its videos more quickly. And Hulu has a number of its employees working on adding captions to its videos and improve existing captions.

Of course, these efforts aren’t entirely altruistic. YouTube, Hulu, Amazon (s AMZN) and Netflix have to comply with the FCC’s mandate, and they’ve been under pressure from disability advocates to go even further. The National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix for not providing captions for part of its catalog last year, and sites like have faced legal action over the issue as well.