Lawsuit against online library moves forward

A photograph of a laptop computer
Accessibility of Online Information

The U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont rejected Scribd Inc.’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that its website violates federal law by failing to provide services in a format accessible to the blind.

The lawsuit, filed in July 2014 by the National Federation of the Blind, accuses Scribd of violating Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation.

Scribd argued that it was not covered by Title III because its services are offered entirely online, as opposed to in a physical location. None of the circuit courts have yet ruled on whether the ADA applies in such situations, while district courts are split on the question.

The court first looked at the language of the ADA, which includes 12 examples of categories that would qualify as places of public accommodation. Although none of these examples referred to the internet, the court concluded that the language was ambiguous on the question.

Then the court examined the parties’ various arguments for and against recognizing websites as places of public accommodation. While the court found the statute could be subject to multiple reasonable interpretations, the court found Scribd’s argument to be too restrictive, and contrary to the ADA’s legislative intent.

In doing so, the court reasoned that Scribd’s services could fall under a range of the examples of public accommodation enumerated in the ADA, including a “place of exhibition or entertainment,” a “rental establishment,” a “service establishment,” “a library,” a “gallery” or a “place of public display or collection.”

“The internet plays such a critical role in the personal and professional lives of Americans, excluding disabled persons from access to covered entities that use it as their principal means of reaching the public would defeat the purpose of this important civil rights legislation,” the court stated.

Scribd offers an internet-based “personal digital library,” allowing subscribers to access the content to more than 40 million titles, as well as create their own content. As described in the NFB’s lawsuit, neither Scribd’s website or mobile apps include an option to be viewed with the assistance of a screen reader, which allows content to be converted into Braille and audio formats accessible to the blind.

“There can be no denying that full participation in the economy and society of the twenty-first century requires access to services provided over the internet,” NFB President Mark A. Riccobono said in a news release. “If blind people are denied such participation, we will be more segregated and isolated than we have ever been. Fortunately, the process of making internet services accessible to us is straightforward.

“We hope that Scribd will now focus on providing us access to its vast library of online books and documents rather than on seeking to deny it.”

The NFB is represented in the lawsuit by attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates, Brown, Goldstein and Levy LLP, and Langrock, Sperry and Wool LLP.