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Judge affirms Netflix subject to ADA guidelines

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.

by MacNN Staff



  1. gskibum3

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Comment Title

    Pretty incredibly stupid. From nothing, companies like Netflix provide a service in order to make a buck. I don't like service because there's no HD audio with streaming content (last I checked). So I'm not one of their customers. I find my entertainment in other ways.

    Now a judge comes along, knowing nothing about how much this will increase costs that will have to be passed on to the consumer, and tells Netflix they have to expand their clientele.

    Netflix already took a big hit largely because they raised prices. Now they'll have to raise prices again.

  1. chas_m



    Dude, it's the law!

    What's "incredibly stupid" is your comment. What part of "prohibiting discrimination" are you having trouble with? The law says you have to make services equally accessible as you do for the non-handicapped (with some exceptions). Adding captions (mostly to movies that already ARE captioned) was a no-brainer and they should have just said "oh, right, sorry about that" and gotten on with it.

    Go look in the mirror and thank your lucky stars (or whatever god you serve) that you are not in need of this particular law's protection.

  1. facebook_Christopher

    Via Facebook

    Joined: Jun 2012


    Incredibly Stupid?

    How about incredibly self absorbed? Your insight into this issue is laughable. Try being deaf and living in a world filled with idiots like yourself. Pat yourself on the back for contributing absolutely nothing at all with your inconsequential gurglings.

  1. fizzy

    Joined: Dec 1969



    Whether Netflix provides the captions is only one issue. Do all the existing Netflix devices have some way to turn captions on and off? Probably not, since they didn't exist when they were designed.

  1. facebook_Robert

    Via Facebook

    Joined: Jun 2012


    comment title

    I fully side with the Judge on this. The only real exemptions to the ADA is if what would be required to come into line with the Act itself would be prohibitively expensive to the company involved. Example, motels built before the ADA went into effect do not have to follow the ADA if the work and cost required to come into line with it went far and beyond reasonable costs. I know this because I own a motel (purchased in 2009) that was built in the 1940s. Doors and foundation are raised up from the ground by about 3 inches, there is no room to install ramps, bathrooms are too small for railings and other handicap accessible features, and in order to properly come in line with the ADA, the whole building would have to be demolished, which is a cost well into multi hundreds of thousands of dollars by our last estimates.

    Netflix is a multi million (if not billion) dollar company, as well as a digital company. The work involved to get Netflix apps to support captions would cost money, but not prohibitively costly that it would make or break the bank. Also keep in mind that the movie studios have all of the Closed Captioning information already in a digital format for things like DVDs and Blurays, so Netflix having access to that data is not a problem.

  1. facebook_Bee

    Via Facebook

    Joined: Jun 2012


    Stupidity abounds

    Thank you, chas_m and everyone else who called gskibum3 out on his idiotic post. Whining about having to raise prices due to the addition of captions?? Are you kidding me?! As a deaf person, I am frequently frustrated and have been reduced to tears in the past because I am not afforded the same accommodations as everyone else. Every time I try to access Netflx Instant, 9 out of 10 times, the movies are impossible for me to watch. Ignorant people like gskibum3 should put themselves in OUR shoes. Try watching a video entirely in sign language and see if you understand wtf is going on and then you'll change your tune. There is NO excuse for Netflix not captioning their videos. None. They're alienating an entire consumer base with their ignorance. And if you happen to not have a handicap that requires captioning you have no right to b**** about it.

  1. testudo

    Joined: Dec 1969



    How does this affect Apple's iTunes service and AppleTV products?

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