Laws prohibiting businesses from discriminating against people with disabilities don't apply to Web sites such as eBay, the company argues in new court papers.
“Internet websites are not real, physical spaces. They are not 'places' in any sense,” eBay argues in a brief filed on Monday with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The company adds that sites operated by “Web-only businesses” aren't covered by the 23-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodation.”
eBay is opposing Web user Melissa Earll's attempt to revive her anti-discrimination lawsuit against the company. Earll, a deaf Missouri resident, says that eBay's policy of requiring sellers to use a telephone to confirm their identities made it impossible for her to sell goods on the service. She argues that eBay's policy violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act as well as California's anti-discrimination laws.
A federal district court judge in northern California dismissed Earll's claims last year, ruling that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't cover Web sites such as the one operated by eBay. The judge said in the ruling that the federal law applies only to physical spaces, like brick-and-mortar stores.
Earll recently appealed that ruling to the 9th Circuit. She argues that limiting the ADA to “physical structures” leaves disabled people without protection from discrimination on the Internet. Earll says that Congress didn't intend that result.
But eBay says in its papers that Congress “reasonably pursued the ADA’s broad antidiscrimination goals in real, physical spaces only.” eBay adds that Earll and the courts “are beholden to that decision unless and until Congress extends and adapts the ADA to websites like eBay.com.”
The company also asks the appeals court to reject Earll's arguments about public policy.
“Earll contends that reversal will vindicate important antidiscrimination principles. Given the clarity of the text, structure, and history of [the ADA], policy arguments are irrelevant,” eBay argues. “Congress must weigh the costs and benefits of extending antidiscrimination laws designed for real, physical spaces to the Internet. To date, Congress has not taken action.”
A federal judge in Massachusetts recently ruled that the federal ADA applies to Netflix. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor said the National Association of the Deaf could proceed with allegations that Netflix discriminates by failing to offer closed captioning online. Ponsor specifically rejected Netflix's argument that its online video service isn't a "place of public accommodation" under the ADA. Netflix settled the lawsuit last year by agreeing to offer closed captioning on streaming video.
But many other courts have come to the opposite conclusion, ruling that the ADA doesn't apply to businesses that lack brick-and-mortar storefronts.
eBay says on its site that it "strives to provide all users, including those with special access needs, with the best customer experiences possible,” and that it is "committed to building a marketplace that is accessible and creates opportunities for people of all abilities."