No, a judge did not just “break the Internet”

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This post is in response to Tim Worstall's recent post on Forbes.com regarding a recent ruling that Netflix is subject of the rules of the ADA.  You can read Worstall's entire article here: "A Judge Just Broke the Internet."

Tim Worstall recently lamented on Forbes.com that "A Judge Just Broke The Internet." His piece argues that the motion judgment in the case of the National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix is "not an attractive looking outcome." Mr. Worstall could not be more wrong in his assertions.

I wrote the editors of Forbes.com requesting that they allow me to post a response to Mr. Worstall's article, but I have not heard back from them. I believe it's important that there be an informed discussion about this topic and would encourage you to write the editors at Forbes at readers@forbes.com requesting that they provide the opportunity for a well rounded discussion.

The event that Worstall claims "broke the internet" is a landmark ruling indicating that web sites are considered public accommodations and therefore are governed by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  As such, web sites must be accessible to all users, including users with disabilities who rely on assistive technology such as screen readers or alternate input devices in order to navigate the web. In the same way that physical locations require ramps, this ruling asserts that the ADA requires that web sites must accommodate web users with disabilities.

Let me detail the top reasons why I believe Mr. Worstall is just plain wrong in his doom and gloom pronouncement. Contrary to his dramatic statement, accessible web sites are positive for everyone in the Internet community:

1. Just as a ramp is helpful to parents with strollers and closed captioning on TVs is useful in noisy areas, accessible web sites benefit all users, not just those with disabilities. Making web pages accessible and coding content correctly can meaningfully enhance Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Who doesn't want their web site to be discovered and ranked highly by Google or other search engines? Videos that are captioned and have transcripts created for them benefit all users because they can be searched, and studies have shown that they aid in comprehension and retention of material for all users. The guidelines that govern accessible web site creation (known by the acronym WCAG) help ensure that sites are navigable and comprehensible for all users.

2. It's great business to make your web site accessible. Most web sites want as much traffic as possible. People with disabilities, according to US Census data, represent about 20% of the population--over 60 million people, a group that were they an ethnic group would be the largest minority population in the country. If you are a business running a web site, what makes the most economic sense: locking out a large, potentially lucrative customer base or making sure that your site is able to accommodate all users? And consumers with disabilities greatly value the convenience of browsing and shopping online. Retailers and service providers who can provide a great experience for this demographic stand to cultivate a very loyal group of customers.

3. The costs to make your web site are not prohibitive. There are any number of free tools that are available to help evaluate the level of accessibility of your site. FireEyes, for example, is a free browser plug in for Mozilla Firefox that my company (Deque Systems) gives away. Additionally, new technologies are bringing down the cost and effort to make a site accessible. Amaze is a new technology that we recently released that makes it possible to correct accessibility bugs quickly and easily. Initial fixes can be deployed with little or no IT investment, and even third party web sites that companies rely on like Facebook or Google Maps can be made accessible without having to have access to the underlying code for the site.

4. Mr. Worstall speculates that international websites will balk at having to suddenly comply with American accessibility compliance regulations, thereby hindering a "seamless and international internet." The International community, however, has rallied around the need for online accessibility, and the Internet has not ground to a halt. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have been created and refined by an international team of volunteer experts, and as a result the guidelines have been embraced globally. Additionally, in countries such as Canada and elsewhere, legislation requiring that web sites become accessible is being implemented in an orderly and positive way, without adversely impacting businesses or users.

While I believe passionately that there is a strong business case for web sites to be accessible, in the end it is a civil rights issue. The Internet is too valuable a resource to deprive people of the ability to utilize it.  In a democratic society, we support and accommodate a wide variety of interests and perspectives because it's the right thing to do, and because it ultimately enriches the entire community.

So, rest easy. Not only is the Internet not broken, but the application of Title III of the ADA to web sites will result in better web sites and more Internet consumers, and that's an outcome that's good for everybody.

-Preety Kumar

We encourage everyone to Tweet @Forbes or email: readers@forbes.com to ask that they provide a space for a different point of view!

About 

Preety is the CEO of Deque Systems and co-founded Deque in 1999 with the vision of unifying Web access, both from the user and the technology perspective. Under Preety's leadership, Deque has grown to be a market leader in the field of information accessibility, serving corporate and government clients with the highest standards in information technology such as Veteran Affairs, Department of Education, Humana, Intuit, HSBC, Target, and others. She collaborated with the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and is a nominated member of the Accessibility Forum's Strategic Management Council: a GSA sponsored group with representatives from the IT industry, academia, Government Agencies, and disabled user groups that fosters information accessibility through mutual cooperation.

1 comment

  • Tony Permalink

    I think that the point Tim Worstall was making was that it is dangerous to use the law to force all web sites to be accessible to all users. Your response does not address this point.

    The danger arises from the risk of class action lawsuits and the resulting costs of settlements or damages payments. No doubt the lawyers who made fortunes out of ADA lawsuits against small shops are looking forward to repeating the process with small corporations’ websites.

    If your points 1-3 are correct then website owners will voluntarily make their websites accessible, and those that don’t will lose all categories of user, not just those with disabilities. Thus market pressure will be enough to make websites accessible and litigation is not required.

    Your note that “people with disabilities” represent about 20% of the population is misleading. Only around 6% have difficulty seeing or hearing, and only around 3% have upper body limitations that might inhibit their use of a computer.

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