Court: Netflix’s closed captioning practices may violate the ADA

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A federal court has refused Netflix’s motion to dismiss a complaint from disability advocacy groups charging that the video streaming website is falling short of its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide accessible services to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

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ADA Violation

With the decision, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts became the first federal court to rule that the ADA applies to website-only businesses.

“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 and would severely frustrate Congress’s intent that individuals with disabilities fully enjoy the goods, services, privileges and advantages, available indiscriminately to other members of the general public,” the court stated in its opinion, from June 19.

In the lawsuit, filed in June 2011, the National Association of the Deaf and the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired took aim at Netflix’s “Watch Instantly,” service, which allows customers to automatically stream videos directly onto their computers. The advocacy groups argued that many of the videos on this service lack closed captioning, a viewer-enabled function that allows people to read text along with a movie or television show.

Netflix argued that the internet is not a “public accommodation” and is therefore not obligated under the ADA to provide accessible services. The court disagreed, saying that a website is analogous to a typical brick and mortar store and falls under three of the 12 categories of public accommodations enumerated under the ADA: a “place of exhibition and entertainment,” a “sales or rental establishment,” and a “service establishment.”

Netflix also argued that the ADA lawsuit was duplicative because some of its services will become subject to the FCC’s new closed captioning accessibility guidelines, mandated by Congress under the Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

The court, however, ruled that the CVAA guidelines may be narrower than the claims alleged under the ADA complaint and that nonetheless, the ADA’s broad mandate provides wide latitude for plaintiffs to make claims charging that various services are inaccessible.

“By recognizing that web-sites are covered by the ADA, the court has ensured that the ADA stays relevant as much of our society moves from Main Street to the Internet. Netflix’s argument that the neighborhood video store is covered by the ADA, but it, with its over 20 million subscribers, is not, was soundly rejected by the Court,” said Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, which represented the plaintiffs, in a National Association of the Deaf news release.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required television programs to provide closed captioning, but the regulations did not pertain to online videos.

The advocates still must proceed with the lawsuit to prove that Netflix, in fact, violated the ADA.