Design Domination Podcast Episode #156: AudioEye versus Adrian Roselli: The SLAPP Heard Around the World

The web accessibility community is in an uproar about the AudioEye lawsuit against 30-year accessibility champion Adrian Roselli for his criticism of their overlay product.


I am talking about the lawsuit that has rocked the accessibility industry, the “SLAPP” heard around the world that has the accessibility community in an uproar.

That is the lawsuit of AudioEye versus Adrian Roselli. Let’s take a look at who the parties are.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is my opinion based on the research that I’ve done on this case and the other ones I mention.

AudioEye

AudioEye was founded in 2005 and has been in the accessibility space for more than 15 years. They have patented AI and automation, which many people may refer to as an “overlay.” They also offer audits and other services.

I’ve talked about overlays before on the podcast. A web accessibility overlay is put on a website by adding a line of javascript code to a site with the purpose of performing automated accessibility checks and fixes on the front end of a website. They don’t affect the underlying code, which is where the issues lie.

Adrian Roselli

Adrian Roselli is a prominent and well-respected consultant, writer and speaker in the accessibility world. He’s been involved in accessibility for 30 years, which is way more than most people. I have followed him for years.

He’s also being a member of many W3C working groups, community groups and task forces. His résumé is extensive and impressive, to say the least. He is always very generous and thorough when sharing his accessibility insights. No doubt that he is definitely well qualified when it comes to accessibility.

Premise of the Lawsuit

Audio Eye is suing Adrian because they don’t like what he has said about their overlay product and they assert that he has targeted their customers with his comments.

Timeline

Adrian has been very matter-of-factly documenting the legal battle on his website in an article called AudioEye Is Suing Me. He’s even been including the documents for people to review.

April 2022

On April 5, 2022, AudioEye issued a cease and desist letter to Adrian.

In that letter, which appears on his website in the article My Cease and Desist From AudioEye, they claim that Adrian was spreading “materially false and disparaging information intended to injure AudioEye’s reputation, malign its products, and destroy its consumer relationships.”

They also had a problem with him allegedly not making mention that they provide more than automated solutions. Since when are you obligated to mention all the services a company provides?

They cited tweets to J.D. Power in particular as an issue.

They said that Adrian stating that AudioEye “doesn’t work” is false and therefore defamatory. They also took issue with him linking to the Overlay Fact Sheet and Overlay False Claims websites.

They demanded that he remove the defamatory posts and pretty much shut up.

A few days later, Adrian got a follow-up letter for not having removed the tweets. They threatened legal action if he did not do so.

Adrian responded by saying he had gone ahead and deleted the tweets about J.D. Power, even though he still believes what he said about AudioEye was accurate.

He goes on to address the points in their letter, saying he was not trying to spread false information or be disparaging but to help end users and the information on which he bases his opinions.

He signed off with “annoyedly.” That was pretty funny.

February 2023

In February 2023, Adrian published AudioEye Will Get You Sued.

March 2023

In March 2023, Adrian says he was served with legal papers. It was a 30-page lawsuit ironically not available in a digital and accessible format.

May 2023

In May, an attorney sent an amended complaint to his attorney, which was an inaccessible PDF. It was an untagged PDF.

The amended complaint mentions critics of overlays in general, then calls out Adrian specifically, accusing him of doctoring videos and giving a false impression that AudioEye as a whole—not just their automated tool—“does not work.”

They refer to a smear campaign against AudioEye. They mention certain Twitter accounts. They mention well-respected web accessibility advocate Karl Groves and disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold too.

July 2023

In July of this year, Adrian’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case based on New York’s anti-SLAPP law. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

Lainey Feingold has said that a SLAPP is a:

type of lawsuit that targets activists in a number of fields around the globe.

Lainey goes on to say that:

A SLAPP suit is a slap in the face of the person being sued for participating in a public issue. And it is a threatened slap in the face for everyone else participating publicly in that issue.

Affidavits and affirmations in Adrian’s support have been filed from Adrian himself, Norbert Rum, Rian Rietveld, Léonie Watson, Steve Faulkner and Ian Hamilton.

What’s really interesting is that former Congressman Tony Coelho, who was a primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, serves on AudioEye’s board of directors.

You can download some of the legal documents from the AudioEye versus Adrian Roselli case from his website.

Other Lawsuits Against Critics of Overlays

Julie Moynat

Now, there have actually been other lawsuits against public opponents of overlays.

A French accessibility overlay company called FACIL’iti allegedly sued French web accessibility advocate Julie Moynat in France’s version of a SLAPP. She had expressed her opinion on Twitter—as an individual, not on behalf of her employer—in response to another tweet.

FACIL’iti (or, rather, their lawyers) sent a letter to the company she worked for in December 2020.

Something interesting to note is that her tweet allegedly only had 9 retweets and 32 likes. So it hadn’t gone viral or anything like that.

She deleted the tweet, but in March 2021, her employer got another letter.

Two months later, she allegedly was served at her residence. The company was seeking 10,500 euros in damages and fines. From the update posts about this on her website, it appears the matter is still ongoing.

Koena

Another target was Koena, a French digital accessibility company. In April 2021, they allegedly got a letter from FACIL’iti’s law firm, citing an issue with their tweets. A month later, they got another letter.

In June, they were summoned to court. FACIL’iti wanted them to remove two tweets and pay 5,000 euros in damages and 6,000 euros for legal fees.

My Opinion

Now, on another note, but a very interesting one, is that AudioEye recently acquired the Bureau of Internet Accessibility. Hmmm…

I want to hear from you what you think of all this. Here’s my opinion…

These overlay companies get tons of funding. Here’s two cases that we know of where they’ve targeted individuals (not companies), most of whom are not able to defend themselves.

How many others have there been that have not gone public, I wonder? Did they just remove their comments? Did they settle out of court? Did they have to pay?

It seems to me that companies with an automated product such as an overlay—something that has been getting a lot of criticism—could learn from the comments they’ve been getting in order to make their products better.

They could also take it as a sign to make their marketing clearer about what an overlay—or toolbar—really can do and cannot do.

Silencing comments they don’t like from experts or even end users certainly doesn’t help the end users. That’s the whole point of accessibility.

I am going to continue following Adrian’s case. I do hope it gets dropped.

Cheers to Adrian for standing up against this and fighting the good fight and standing up for accessibility.

Update (January 3, 2024)

The lawsuit has been dropped!

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