Netflix, Closed-Captioning, and a Legal Settlement

Back in July, I posted about Netflix’s lost bid to have the a lawsuit against it thrown out of court. A class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Deaf asserted that Netflix violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because Netflix when it failed to provide closed-captioning for many of its streaming videos. My post reflected a bit on how the right thing to do can sometimes be very complicated. There are times, I think, when people/groups that demonstrate generally good will get (themselves) into questionable situations because they either didn’t think through their plans entirely, or they through it so late that changing course is so difficult, they are stopped in their tracks. Doing justice (a virtue) thing requires bravery (another virtue), but it also requires prudence (a third virtue) to figure out the right course of action to achieve justice.  For publicly traded companies seeking to do the right thing while both staying in business and—most importantly—keeping major shareholders happy, that’s no mean feat. Putting yourself out of business is not necessarily the most morally laudable course of action.

Well, it looks like the legal process worked its magic.  According to Joe Mullin at Ars Technica:

In an agreement that the National Association for the Deaf NAD calls “a model for the streaming video industry,” Netflix has agreed to caption all of its shows by the year 2014…reaching the 90 percent mark in 2013 and 100 percent by 2014.

The company has also agreed to speedily caption new content. The agreement says that Netflix will put captions on new content within 30 days by 2014; within 14 days by 2015; and within 7 days by 2016, “and shall strive to reach a point at which Conforming Captions are provided simultaneously with launch at all times.”

I’m generally not a fan of solving problems by lawsuits; I’d rather see people just do the right thing. But sometimes it is necessary, and it is nice when the process works for the good.

Beyond that, three things strike me.  First, Netflix is “already captioning 82 percent of its videos.” That was much higher than I expected, given some of the rhetoric I’ve seen about Netflix around the web. Second, I was glad to see that some concession was made to the technical complexity of the task facing Netflix. As Mullin notes:

Netflix provides its service on more than 1,000 devices; its captioning service works on most, but not all, of those. The company promises to make “good faith, diligent efforts” to get it working on all devices, but it isnt obligated to get 100% device compatibility.

That seems to me eminently reasonable.  Netflix is a technology company, but they can’t do everything, and they can’t do everything right now. This pushes Netflix to move forward toward enabling access for all (plus, complying with the ADA), while being realistic about the fact that Netflix does not have unlimited resources at its disposal to make sure cc works with every single device. It also requires something of people who really want closed captioning, namely that they make sure to purchase a device that works with the service.

Third, and finally, it will be interesting to see whether or not this has a ripple effect on other device makers and services. I’ve not heard of similar suits against other providers of similar services or hardware, and I have a hard time believing that they are all 100% compliant. (Although I may totally be wrong.) My guess is that it is like the situation with fair labor and Apple: go after the big guy and hope that changes trickle down. That hasn’t happened with fair labor so far.  Hopefully, it happens here.

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