updated 06:40 pm EDT, Fri June 22, 2012
Netflix argued online-only presence gave it an exemption
On Tuesday, US District Court Judge Michael Posnor decreed that Netflix and other public online services are subject to provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). This decision could require Internet-streamed media to include accommodations for the deaf or blind, such as captions or descriptive text. The judge wasn't hearing the case proper, but was ruling on a motion to dismiss by Netflix, who argued that it wasn't accountable to ADA guidance due to the streaming service's online-only presence.
Lee Nettles, a complainant and staff member at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Springfield, MA said that Netflix movie streaming discriminates against the hearing-impaired as the streaming aspect of the service doesn't embed captions. The lack of captions forces the deaf to pay for more expensive DVD rentals, which typically come with captions. The complaint was filed by Nettles, the National Association of the Deaf, and the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.
"In a society in which business is increasingly conducted online, excluding businesses that sell services through the Internet from the ADA would run afoul of the purposes of the ADA, " Posnor wrote in his court briefing. Web-based businesses didn't exist when the disabilities act was passed in 1990, the judge added, but Congress intended the law to adapt to technological changes.
Boston PBS superstation WGBH has subtitled thousands of films and shows, and Larry Goldberg, the director of media access at WGBH, says that it costs between $400 and $800 to add captions to a movie from scratch. Many of the movies shown on Netflix have existing captions provided by the distributors or film studios. Goldberg estimates that adding existing captions to the internet-streaming version of a film or TV show should cost less than $200.
WGBH is subject to Title IV of the ADA, which requires all telecommunications companies in the US take steps to ensure functionally-equivalent services for consumers with disabilities. Businesses, presumably including Netflix, fall under Title III of the ADA prohibiting discrimination "on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation." Public accommodations include recreation, education, and places of public displays. The Netflix focus on media may place it under the aegis of Title IV, as well.
National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation in 2006 established that commercial websites are considered a place of accommodation under Title IV of the ADA. This ruling established a precedent, and Judge Marilyn Hall Patel lauded the complainants in the case saying that the "plaintiffs' litigation strategy involved the extension of important areas of disability law into an emerging form of electronic commerce that promises to grow in importance."
Today's ruling opens the door for the suit to continue, barring Netflix appeal. Netflix said it would not comment on a pending lawsuit.