June 25, 2012 8:50AM

Judge Green‐​Lights ADA Captioning Suit against Netflix

A federal judge has declined to dismiss a lawsuit against Netflix arguing that its Watch Instantly streaming viewing service violates the rights of deaf persons under the Americans with Disabilities Act because many of the movies it offers lack closed captioning. In the Boston Globe, Hiawatha Bray quotes me on the case:

…the high cost of adding accessibility features to all online entertainment services could pose an undue burden on Internet companies and lead to reduced choices for consumers, said Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

“This forces Netflix to serve markets that it currently doesn’t find profitable to serve,” said Olson, and could prompt online video companies to refrain from stocking obscure and unusual films, to avoid the expense of adding subtitles to movies that few customers will want to see.

The Caption Center at Boston public television station WGBH has subtitled thousands of films and TV shows, according to Larry Goldberg, WGBH’s director of media access. Goldberg said it costs $400 to $800 to add captions to a movie from scratch.

And captioning for the deaf is just the start if the law’s goal is to be what one advocate quoted in the Globe piece calls “100% equality.” Some in the blind community believe all films should be accompanied by “descriptive video” supplemental soundtracks that describe action on screen (“Jenny walks over to the desk and takes a revolver out of the drawer. She points it silently at the intruder.”) That could add substantial additional cost to the distribution of, say, small‐​circulation independent documentaries, vintage public‐​domain features and other low‐​revenue fare. While the current suit is against Netflix, the precedents it sets would also apply to much smaller providers of online streaming. Much more on the push for “web accessibility,” and its implications for almost everyone who communicates over the Web, here.