Congress must stop President Obama's Justice Department from opening up the Internet to junk lawsuits. Filing such cynical litigation is a way of life for legions of class-action trial lawyers who specialize in the Americans with Disabilities Act. They travel from small business to small business looking for even the tiniest of infractions of the ADA, then file suits knowing their best chance for making money is in accepting settlement payments in return for dropping the litigation. That's exactly what happens most of the time.
These nuisance suits are a huge cost to small businesses across the country. Entrepreneurs have advocated amending the ADA to require a disabled person to talk with a business
about an access problem before going to court. But so far the trial lawyer lobby has prevented any changes to their ADA lawsuit gravy train. The problem stems for Title III of the ADA, which empowers differently abled individuals to sue in federal court any "public accommodation" in violation of even one of the literally thousands of federally created guidelines. These regulations minutely dictate the layout and amenities of our nation's stores, eateries and movie theaters. Bathrooms alone are subject to at least 95 different access standards.
As big a headache as these suits are to brick-and-mortar businesses, the Obama Justice Department is now moving to bring the same problems online. For the first two decades of the ADAs existence, the law was only applied to physical locations because websites aren't public accommodations. But several recent decisions could change that. Target, for example, was forced to pay $6 million to blind customers who had trouble shopping on the retailer's website. Netflix was forced to provide captions for every entertainment item it offers to the public.
Now the Obama Justice Department is about to issue new ADA accessibility guidelines for the Internet that will empower class-action shysters to sue. Websites may be required to include audio descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, as well as captions or transcripts of videos for the deaf. "It's what I call 'eat your spinach' litigation," National Federation of the Blind lawyer Daniel Goldstein told The Wall Street Journal. "The market share you gain is more than the costs of making your site accessible."
But if meeting these new Internet ADA guidelines was beneficial to consumers, then no federal regulations would be necessary. Web development consultants estimate new ADA regulations could increase web production costs 10 percent. And what about news sites that post audio and videos of breaking news? Providing transcriptions of every news item with an audio component would likely be cost prohibitive for all but the largest of these organizations.
The Internet is among the great engines of American economic growth and ingenuity. The fact that the Internet is also among the least regulated spaces is no coincidence. Enabling the same junk lawsuits that terrorize small businesses in the physical world to proliferate on the Internet is a bad idea. Congress should move quickly to make clear the ADA does not apply to the Internet.