Internet Association Backs eBay in Legal Fight With Deaf User

In a case with the potential to redefine the legal ramifications of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Internet Association says the act should not apply to entities without physical locations.

It was a landmark law when it took effect in 1990, but should the Americans With Disabilities Act apply to the internet?

Applying the ADA to all Web sites may place uncertain, conflicting, burdensome, and possibly ruinous obligations on members of The Internet Association.

An ongoing legal battle involving a deaf eBay user is raising the question in a dramatic way, and in an early show of its legal strength, the Internet Association has taken a stance on the issue favoring the e-commerce giant. More details:

The conflict: In 2010,  Melissa Earll of Nevada, Missouri, filed a lawsuit against eBay, claiming  the company is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Earll said she was unable to sign up for an eBay merchant account because it required phone verification. (Her lawyer suggested a text-messaging service as a workable alternative.) The San Jose, California-based company successfully argued in U.S. District Court there that the ADA , which became law in 1990 and predates widespread use of the internet,  only applies to physical “places,” not websites. The judge threw out the case last year, ruling that Earll couldn’t refile allegations relating to the ADA. However, she is asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to take up the case.

The stance: The Internet Association, in an amicus brief filed last week, favored the e-commerce giant’s position, saying: “Applying the ADA to all Web sites may place uncertain, conflicting, burdensome, and possibly ruinous obligations on members of The Internet Association,” the association wrote, according to MediaPost. The association argues that the internet, due to its overall complexity, would create an environment that would expose web providers to “significant liability, without a clear and workable legal standard.”

An opposing view: In a policy statement, the National Association of the Deaf disagreed with this stance, noting a 1996 document from the Justice Department that argues  Title III of the ADA covers “use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services.” The association notes, however, that legal cases have not followed this standard. “Unfortunately, courts are not required to follow Department of Justice letters, settlement agreements, or briefs,” the association writes.

This isn’t the first time a tech company has clashed over issues regarding the deaf or the hearing-impaired. A similar case involving Netflix and the National Association of the Deaf ended differently last year, with the video-streaming company agreeing to add closed captioning to its videos by 2014.

(photo by cytech/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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