Almost every day for the past six months, I have run into some type of discussion and debate about Web3. A quick explanation of Web3 is that of a decentralized Internet where applications and platforms will no longer be operated by centralized entities like Google, Apple, or Facebook but individual users and builders. One of the most significant, if not controversial, aspects of Web3 currently is Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT)s, unique digital assets that can be bought and sold using blockchain technology.
Full disclosure: I haven’t embraced what has been promised with Web3, specifically, NFTs. Boiling my opinion to its most basic level, I believe it’s the case that the theory of Web3 is more desirable than what has been shown in practice. Regardless of my thoughts, if it exists on the Internet, it should be accessible. I have been public with the need for NFTs to be accessible, but before making any more statements, I wanted to gather further insight into their accessibility. I decided the best way to accomplish this was to purchase one.
The NFT purchase process I reviewed:
- Signup and creation of a Coinbase account and wallet.
- Buying Ethereum (ETH).
- Purchasing an NFT on OpenSea.
There are many other platforms for buying and storing cryptocurrencies, and hundreds of NFT markets, but I wanted to keep this to highly recommended and publicized platforms and pairings. I decided to do this all on my smartphone and its screen reader (Pixel 6 and TalkBack). I want to note that I am visually impaired. I have Keratoconus and a scarred macular in my right eye. My work frequently involves using screen readers and other assistive technology devices for testing. I don’t consider myself a screen reader power user, but I am adept at using TalkBack.
I didn’t find the process of purchasing an NFT more or less accessible than buying items on many eCommerce platforms right now. That is to say; there were significant issues. I can’t say I was surprised by this, as much of Web 2.0 is inaccessible to disabled people. I will not list every accessibility bug or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines violation, but the usual suspects were represented, such as missing labels, poor color contrast, inaccurate heading structure, etc. However, I want to point out three sections of the process that I found significant blockers: identity verification, wallet recovery phrase, and NFT alternative text.
Coinbase is a regulated financial service and is required to identify its users. This identification happens through the app taking pictures of the front and back of a driver’s license or identification card. The app has guide markers to help line up the card for the photos, but there is no other assistance with positioning. This can be highly frustrating or downright impossible, depending on the disability. Some individuals would need in-person assistance, which opens them up to security vulnerabilities of sensitive information. I was able to take the photos myself, but it required me to move to a surface where the contrast between it and my ID card was enough to know where I was aiming the phone. I was also required to take a photo of my face to be compared to my ID. Again, this can be extremely difficult or impossible for many blind and visually impaired individuals. The face must be within a designated marker, which might call for in-person assistance.
This type of mobile authentication and verification process is not unique to Coinbase. It is in use by many other companies and institutions in mobile applications. It is also similar to how banking apps handle online check deposits.
Wallet Recovery Phrase
Before I could use Opensea, I needed to transfer ETH to a wallet. Coinbase Wallets are non-custodial, which means the private key for the wallet is only stored on your device, and only you control it. I was directed to set up a passcode or biometrics for security, and a recovery phase was generated. A recovery (seed) phrase is a collection of randomly generated words (Coinbase Wallet generates 12) that can recover the wallet if access becomes misplaced or compromised. If you lose this phrase, there is no way to regain access to the wallet. Coinbase prompted me to backup the recovery phrase with a choice to use the Cloud (Google Drive or iCloud) or manually, which visually displays the words to be written down. When selecting “backup manually,” there is an option to copy the words to the phone’s clipboard. I didn’t want to backup my phrase to the Cloud, and writing it down was out of scope, as many disabled people would not be able to do this. So I decided to copy it to the clipboard to move to encrypted external storage. When I selected “copy to clipboard,” a message popped up informing me that it was copied to the clipboard for one minute. This is not something that takes me a minute when I use a screen reader, so I ended up backing it up to the Cloud to avoid losing the information.
People with disabilities may require more time to perform activities and functions. This time limit causes significant difficulty in copying the phrase for those who use assistive technology devices, and for many, it will render it completely inaccessible. In addition, if an individual uses a cloud storage solution other than Google Drive or iCloud and writing it down is not possible, this time limit could lead to incorrectly or not capturing the recovery phrase and potentially losing access to the wallet in the future.
NFT Alternative Text
NFTs can be anything digital like music, video, in-game items, but the most common usage is photography or artwork, so that is what I planned to buy. I explored the OpenSea galleries, and after going through at least 20-25 trending and top NFT collections, I did not come across any alternative text for images. The pages for individual NFTs do include a description field but I found that creators didn’t use them to give details on a particular image but describe the theme of the entire collection.
Alternative text is critical for digital assets like photos and artwork. It gives access to people with visual and specific cognitive disabilities by describing the function, appearance, and context of an image or graphic they cannot see. If someone is willing to spend hundreds or thousands in currency, they should have the full details of what they are buying, whether they are disabled or not.
The lack of alt text is a show-stopping blocker, but I decided to press on and complete buying an NFT to evaluate the entire process. I scrolled through a few more collections before finding an NFT that I wanted to bid on (an illustration of a black cat). I placed a bid on it and realized I could not do so because after transferring Ethereum to my wallet, my.01619316 ETH (USD 47.68) was now 0.01270716 ETH (USD 37.42) due to the network fees.
Author’s Note: Coinbase only allows specific payment methods. I did not want to use a bank account, debit card, or PayPal so I was left with Google Pay. Since my account was undergoing verification I had a limit of $50 (it has since been bumped up to $750 per week) to buy Ethereum. I did not want to spend more than this.
The creator used polygon, which I would have to convert my Ethereum to, which also had a network transaction fee attached. The network fee at the time was given to be $44-68 due to high traffic. I had made a bid of .011 ETH, so I didn’t have enough to cover the purchase. I decided to wait a few days and try again. I went back to buy an NFT listed at a lower price and wouldn’t require me to convert to another currency to shave off at least one fee. I did find one that fit the bill, and when I went to buy that one – the network fees were even higher.
I realized that I needed to purchase more cryptocurrency or stop my evaluation.
I did not purchase an NFT.
Ultimately, I didn’t buy an NFT because of affordability rather than technical inaccessibility. I stated earlier that I found purchasing an NFT no more or less accessible than other activities and tasks on the Web. Digital accessibility under Web 2.0 is a constant fight against misconceptions and misplaced priorities by centralized entities and platforms. Would Web3’s focus on decentralization and individual users and builders be different? Web3 still majority exists in a theoretical space, but what has been brought into actuality doesn’t seem different than what exists with Web 2.0. That doesn’t make me feel optimistic about digital accessibility in a Web3 world, but I am willing to be proven wrong.