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Opinion

August 30, 2012

The ADA can apply to Internet businesses

Nearly everyone knows that the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, requires employers and those who offer public accommodations to do so in a way that provides access to people with disabilities. The law requires stores, restaurants and other businesses to provide reasonable accommodation to the disabled.

But, does ADA apply to Internet sites?

Netflix offers an online “Watch Instantly” service, allowing people to view online streaming video of movies. A deaf plaintiff sued the company for not providing captioning along with the movies.

Netflix filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that its service is not a place of public accommodation and that therefore the ADA does not apply.

The U.S. District Court in Boston looked at the law and said it’s not that simple. The website could qualify as a “service establishment” covered by ADA because it provides the service of streaming video over the Internet. Or, it could be considered a place of exhibition or entertainment, another category specifically included in ADA, because it displays movies and other content. A third category included in ADA into which the Internet business could be squeezed is that of “rental establishment.” Customers pay to rent video programming.

Netflix also argued they were not covered by ADA because their services were not provided “at” or “in” their business, but at the customer’s home. The court disagreed, holding that ADA covers services “of” public accommodation, not services “at” or “in” a public accommodation. While private homes are not places of public accommodation, the decision held that entities that provide services in the home may qualify as places of public accommodation.

That was the ruling in National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix Inc., decided June 19.

In 2006, the Target chain settled an ADA case brought in California by the National Federation of the Blind.

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