When it comes to accommodating their customers, online entities lacking brick-and-mortar storefronts don’t face the same regulations as physical businesses.  While they have no need for access ramps and handicapped-reserved parking spaces, must online businesses still provide special accessibility to those with disabilities?

For some time now, little case law has addressed the issue.  In 2006, a court ruled in National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp. that Target must make its website accessible to the blind.  However, it was not clear that the ruling meant the ADA applied online, since the holding appeared to be limited to the context of websites that drive sales at physical retail outlets.

Last week, for the first time, a federal court ruled that the ADA applies to businesses that sell onlineIn National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc., Judge Ponsor of the District of Massachusetts held that the purposes of the ADA require it to apply equally to internet-based commercial operations.  The judge refused to grant Netflix’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that its “Watch Instantly” site is not a “place of public accommodation” within the meaning of the ADA.  Thus, the judge allowed to go forward the plaintiff’s charge that the lack of closed captioning on some of Netflix’s online rentals violates the Act.

Disability rights groups hailed the ruling as ensuring that anti-discrimination laws will continue to apply in our rapidly changing world.  Critics, however, fear that the ruling will stifle internet growth, as the technology required to cater to various disabilities is not yet available or is prohibitively expensive, and that fear of litigation will cause sites to avoid innovation that may invite lawsuits.  Furthermore, copyright laws restrict streaming content providers’ ability to convert spoken words to text (and vice versa) without a separate license—another factor that may greatly increase costs.

Are these fears overblown?  Do public-accommodation laws threaten innovation on the internet? And, even if they do, are those costs justified in order to keep the internet a place that’s equally accessible to all?  This is an area of scant law.  But, after this ruling we should expect more cases to explore these competing policies.

Collins Kilgore

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