This post has been updated. See below for details:
A federal judge in Massachusetts has denied Netflix Inc.’s request to throw out a lawsuit brought by the National Assn. for the Deaf, which alleges that the service discriminates against the deaf and hard of hearing by failing to provide closed captioning on all of the movies and TV shows available through its Internet streaming service.
The case, filed last year by the civil rights group, alleges Netflix’s popular “Watch Instantly” service failed to offer closed captioning on “the vast majority” of its ever-growing library of movies and TV shows that can be watched via the Internet on demand.
As a result, millions of people who are deaf or hard of hearing could not take advantage of the Internet subscription service, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the suit alleges.
Netflix argued that its Web-based offering should not be subject to the requirements of the 1990 act, which is intended to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Among the arguments it put forth is that its on-demand service couldn’t be considered a public accommodation — like a video rental store — because the movies and TV shows are screened in people’s homes.
“This argument is unpersuasive,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor in the June 19 ruling.
The National Assn. for the Deaf’s chief executive, Howard A. Rosenblum, called the judgment “a very significant ruling.”
“There’s no excuse for this, in our view, because movies already have captioning files,” Rosenblum said. “What excuse does Netflix have for not including it in their Internet streaming videos?”
Netflix declined to comment on the ruling, but noted that captions or subtitles are available on more than 80% of its most-watched titles.
“We continue to require captions or subtitles from our providers for all new content where it is available,” wrote Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt in a blog post earlier this year. “Our goal is to provide more and more content with captions.”
The case is expected to go to mediation, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
[Updated at 5:50 p.m. Monday]
Netflix issued the following statement regarding the ruling: “Netflix has always been committed to making its content accessible to members of the deaf and hard of hearing community. More than 80% of the hours streamed in the US are movies and TV shows with captions or subtitles available. We have committed to providing captions wherever we can procure them from the content owner and we have an active program to author subtitles for significant content where they are not already available. The framework that the FCC has established is an important part of ensuring captioned or subtitled content can be most efficiently provided. We believe the FCC regulations provide the most comprehensive and appropriate guidance to businesses on captioning.”