Aug 20, 2019

The internet's accessibility reckoning

Illustration: Axios/Rebecca Zisser

A years-long legal battle between Domino's Pizza and a blind man named Guillermo Robles over whether the pizza chain is required by law to make its website accessible to the disabled could make it all the way up to the Supreme Court this year.

Why it matters: Should the case go that far, its outcome could forever change the way the internet is regulated — and determine how accessible the internet will be in the future for the roughly 20% of Americans with a disability.

Driving the news: Domino's is petitioning the Supreme Court to take up the case after a federal appeals court sided with Robles in 2016.

  • The pizza giant argues that compliance to the American Disabilities Act (ADA) is costly and unnecessary, since the law doesn't explicitly include internet provisions. The disabled community argues that online coverage is implied in the ADA.
  • "When we wrote the bill and it passed nearly 30 years ago, obviously, the internet was not up and alive," say former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), a disabilities advocate who authored the ADA. "But when we say that the bill covers all public accommodations, we believe that applies today to the internet. And I believe that if it got to Supreme Court, it would say it does, too."

Be smart: Domino's has positioned itself at the helm of innovation. It was the first company to deliver a pizza by drone and the first major pizza company to launch online and mobile delivery service in 2007.

The backdrop: In order to be accessible to consumers with disabilities, businesses often need to update their website's software code to work with screen readers and other technologies that make websites more accessible to those with disabilities.

  • Coelho, who has suffered from epilepsy for over 60 years, sits on the board of AudioEye, a technology company that works to broaden accessibility to technology for those with disabilities. He says the problem of digital accessibility is even bigger than most companies realize, impacting everyone from the elderly to those with seizures that are induced by flashing lights.

The big picture: Inconsistent court rulings and regulatory positions on the issue over the years have brought little clarity on whether businesses have to legally update their software, leaving millions of Americans unable to access retail and consumer websites.

  • A growing number of lawsuits are being brought up around the country by disabled consumers against businesses in an attempt to rectify the issue.
  • Beyonce's official website, Hooters' website, Five Guys' website and thousands more have been hit with ADA lawsuits in recent years.
  • "We're seeing a significant number of lawsuits that are filed increasingly on a month over month basis," says Mark Shapiro, president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, Inc. "We're seeing a doubling from last year. ... And what we're seeing in the courts is only a fraction of the demand letters that law firms send out and get settled. There's been a major increase in those as well."

Our thought bubble: This is a losing fight for Dominos, especially regarding a possible hit to its reputation. "I find it hard to believe that they would spend millions of dollars to try to fight something like this instead of spending a fraction of that money to fix their site and make it accessible," says Shapiro.

What's next: When the Supreme Court returns from summer recess, it will decide whether it will take up the case or not. If it does, experts expect it to be reviewed by the end of the year.

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