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Judge Rules Sites Can Be Sued Over Design 709

Posted by Zonk
from the some-attrocious-colors-should-inspire-suits dept.
BcNexus writes "According to the Associated Press, a California judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought against the Target Corporation may proceed under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The catch here is that the suit, leveled by the National Federation of the Blind, concerns the design of Target's website. Could this set a precedent and subsequent flood of lawsuits against websites? What if another design is not tractable?" From the article: "'What this means is that any place of business that provides services, such as the opportunity to buy products on a website, is now, a place of accommodation and therefore falls under the ADA,' said Kathy Wahlbin, Mindshare's Director of User Experience and expert on accessibility. 'The good news is that being compliant is not difficult nor is it expensive. And it provides the additional benefit of making accessible web sites easier for search engines to find and prioritize.'"
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Judge Rules Sites Can Be Sued Over Design

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  • This just plain scares me. In a society where a criminal can sue the homeowner of the house he broke into and got injured AND WIN. I can only see this as ending poorly for site developers. But I will hope that someone realizes how foolish this kind of lawsuit is
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bing Tsher E (943915)
      I can see this as ending poorly for site developers who use Flash. But, then. . .
    • by terrymr (316118) *
      Can you cite a case where this actually happened ? I've tried the likes of snopes.com and haven't come up with anything yet.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Off-topic, but an answer to your question.

        While I don't have any web-based citations, there was a case in the late 80's where a student at a high school in Eureka California fell through a skylight and injured himself while trying to break in to vandalize the school. He sued the school for damages, claiming they should have had warnings, visible in the dark, to warn people not to walk on skylights. He won the initial suit, and the school won on apeal - reducing the payout to the kids medical bills.

        I was n
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Those who realize how foolish it is aren't in any position to do anything about it. This adversarial tactic does no one any good. Target gets heat if they actually point out how many blind people use their website (I'm guessing less than a small fraction of 1%). The blind people get heat when they complain about an inherently visual medium not being accessable enough. And, of course, no matter the outcome, laywers get heat for participating in this stupidity.

      The reasonable tactic would have been to app

      • by flooey (695860) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:23PM (#16073378)
        The reasonable tactic would have been to approach Target and offer to work with them to find a solution. Not only would it be cheaper for all sides in the short and long terms, but the positive light it would cast all parties in would bring everyone more money--more than enough to offset the costs of at least a partial site rebuild. In this case, the cheaper solution is the one that lets everyone win. Sadly, this fight is not about what's best for everyone. It's about sticking it to Target. That is how I think most people will see it.

        I think you have a somewhat optimistic view of how a company like Target would respond to such a request. I think a more likely response would be that they would say that they're definitely interested in building a more accessible site, that they'll get to it when time allows, a short flurry of memos would be distributed among the website people stating such, and then it would be forgotten about by the time the next redesign came around and nothing would end up happening.

        Doing it that way would definitely be cheaper for Target, and probably cheaper for the disabled, but runs the serious risk of resulting in absolutely no change at all. In truth, there's nothing in the story that indicates what kind of contact they may have had with Target prior to filing suit (there's really nothing much in the story at all), so they may well have attempted to pursue that option but ended up having to file suit anyway.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by timeOday (582209)
          Doing it that way would definitely be cheaper for Target, and probably cheaper for the disabled, but runs the serious risk of resulting in absolutely no change at all.
          So? I get annoyed when a site isn't firefox-compatible (and no, I cannot run MSIE on my Linux computer), but I don't sue people.
      • Re:This is Dangerous (Score:5, Informative)

        by theodicey (662941) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:31PM (#16073412)
        The reasonable tactic would have been to approach Target and offer to work with them to find a solution. Not only would it be cheaper for all sides in the short and long terms

        They did. Target refused to make any reasonable effort to make their site accessible. [com.com]

        "The NFB wrote to Target in May, asking it to make the site more accessible, according to the plaintiffs. Negotiations broke down in January, which led to the filing of the lawsuit, the organization said."

        I know that bashing lawyers is instinctual for some people, but at least think first, OK?
      • by NMerriam (15122) <NMerriam@artboy.org> on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:54PM (#16073548) Homepage
        they complain about an inherently visual medium not being accessable enough

        How is the web an inherently visual medium? It's based entirely on textual data, with support for graphics bolted on to make it prettier. The important things at the Target website are lists of store locations, operating hours, phone numbers, and that's what they were sued over. You don't need a picture to tell someone the address of your store. You don't need a picture to tell someone which brands of irons you carry and how much each model costs. You *should* add pictures of items to increase sales, since people generally like to see what they're buying, but blind people accept that limitation.

        This is, quite frankly, a perfectly sensible ruling and something web developers have been warning companies about for nearly a decade. This is not some crazy fringe group out to cause trouble, this is a problem we've all known about for years and years but too many people ignored because it was cheaper or easier to cross your fingers than follow sound advice (although ironically enough, a well-designed (and therefore accessible) site will be cheaper and easier in the long run because of easier maintenance and adaptability).
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by drsquare (530038)
      As a disabled person, I don't find this ruling foolish at all.
    • by Prof.Phreak (584152) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:08PM (#16073298) Homepage
      I can only see this as ending poorly for site developers.

      You mean they'll have to provide a simple text only alternative to the site? Uh, oh, that's like -so- bad for everyone involved.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by zoeblade (600058)

        They'll have to provide a simple text only alternative to the site

        Alternative? If the site's made well using web standards, all the browser needs to do is ignore the stylesheet (like Firefox has the option to do, and Lynx has to do), and you can see the site without any snazzy design getting in the way of the actual content. You certainly don't need to make two copies of every page.

    • Re:This is Dangerous (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Greg Lindahl (37568) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:39PM (#16073460) Homepage
      What scares *me* is knee-jerk reactions like yours. Do you realize that the ADA limits lawsuits so that the owner has to make improvements, but the plaintif can't get damages? All the lawsuit is is a way to force property owners to comply with the law.

      And in this case it's working exact like it was designed.

      And any web designer who didn't do it the right way has only themselves to blame, because the ADA was passed in 1990.
  • Not Mindshare's spin of it. Until then, we don't know enough.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    And in other news, the National Association of the Deaf is suing Apple because iPods to not adequately provide for the music needs of the non-hearing. Also, the National Association of the Mute is suing AT&T because telephones do not adequately provide for the communication needs of the non-speaking. Multimedia and communications companies have also been informed by the National Association of the Blind, Deaf, Mute, Crippled and Crazy of their intention to file a number of lawsuits.
    • Deaf people use TTY (Score:3, Informative)

      by tepples (727027)

      Also, the National Association of the Mute is suing AT&T because telephones do not adequately provide for the communication needs of the non-speaking.

      Your analogy falls apart. Deaf people can tunnel text over a voice channel and have been able to do so for decades, even back when AT&T had a monopoly on telephones. It's called a teletypewriter [wikipedia.org]. Nowadays there's even a relay service to translate between voice and TTY modes.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:09PM (#16073050)
    Smaller businesses can take years to squeeze the cost of a total site re-design out of their profits. A large, sprawling site that's been growing for years may not lend itself to anything other than a major piece of work. That's not to say the business shouldn't do it for other reasons (like SEO), but if they want to alienate some customers because for them, that's less expensive than a big IT project, that should be their call. Not a lawyers. I can't believe that any business not in the mood to do this doesn't have competition that is.

    Of course, I smell some consulting blood in the water, here. On the other hand, one of my customers sells eyewear for sports. Somehow I don't think that redesigning their site for the blind is going to be high on their list. The irony is, they can still get sued anyway. Brilliant.
    • No kidding (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:17PM (#16073086)
      For example my parents run a quit shop, not in the US so this doesn't apply, however it gets me thinking. They have a large amount of fabric online you can buy. It's just pictures and sku numbers. There's not any text descriptions. Why? Well that takes time to write, time they don't have. Their web person doesn't even keep up with the load of things to be done as it is, much less have the time to write up fabric descriptions.

      So to say it "wouldn't be expensive" to do this is BS. They'd have to hire someone. That's expensive, especially considering they aren't making a profit right now. It also wouldn't be worth it, there are a whole lot of blind quilters since it is a visual medium. There's nothing stopping a blind person from doing it, of course, but it's hard to appreciate your work if you can't see it.

      So ya, I'm sure the expense is minimal for large companies, but you've got to think about the small businesses too. When your entire web team is one person, and your entire staff is like 6 people, hiring another person IS expensive, really expensive.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by NMerriam (15122)
        So ya, I'm sure the expense is minimal for large companies, but you've got to think about the small businesses too.

        Something that is frequently unknown whever laws applying to businesses are discussed is that the vast majority of regulations do not apply to small businesses. Accessibility, equal opportunity employment, etc are all bogeymen dragged out by people as keeping small business down, but they simply don't apply until you reach a certain size (100 employees seems to be a common minimum).

        If you have
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Isofarro (193427)

        They have a large amount of fabric online you can buy. It's just pictures and sku numbers. There's not any text descriptions. Why? Well that takes time to write, time they don't have.

        Sounds like a very search-unfriendly site. Adding descriptions - which would certainly help people relying on screen readers - has a knock on effect of those descriptions being indexed on search engines. This has the benefit of bringing in targeted traffic to the website - of people looking for a particular fabric. An imme

    • On the other hand, one of my customers sells eyewear for sports. Somehow I don't think that redesigning their site for the blind is going to be high on their list.

      One member of a family uses sport eyewear. Another member of the family, who holds the purse strings, is blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. One of your customers will likely lose business to a competitor whose site is more accessible to blind people.

      • That should be the company's business decision to go after that business or to disregard it - it should not be required by law.
    • by Aqua OS X (458522)
      Small businesses typically don't have massive sites. In most cases adding a bunch of ALT tags to images is not going to break the bank.

      In Target's case, they have a large company with a site that's driven by a database and modular components. Adding ALT tags to their product image really shouldn't be that big of a deal unless they did some sloppy development. Their legal fees probably cost a lot more then their development costs. I imagine the plaintiff simply followed through with this case to set precede
    • by grcumb (781340) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:57PM (#16073564) Homepage Journal
      Smaller businesses can take years to squeeze the cost of a total site re-design out of their profits.

      Well, no problem there, then, because website accessibility issues have been discussed and understood in professional circles since the late 1990s. That's lots of time. The Web Accessibility Initiative [w3.org], for example, is driven by the same organisation that defines HTML and XML. They've been promoting accessibility publicly since about 1998. So someone could hardly call themselves a web professional and not know about this issue in detail.

      Unless you've been sucked in by some fly-by-night operator who thinks that FrontPage and an undergrad arts course are all that's needed to create the public face of your business, you're already good to go. Because you know that standards compliance saves you money in the long run, and that the most common blind person to visit your site is a web crawler, meaning that accessbility and search engine ranking can be directly correlated.

      Yep, as long as you diluted the commercial, proprietary snake-oil with just a few dollops of common sense, ensuring accessiblity is a simple matter of picking up the WAI checklist and having an intern spend a few days verifying the few minor problems that somehow leaked into production.

      So what was your objection, again?

  • Really bad. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Toba82 (871257) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:10PM (#16073055) Homepage
    This is not a good thing, at all. How exactly do you define a 'service'? How do you define 'accessible'? The judge should have instead called for an extension of the ADA, with explicit description of what sites it applies to and what it means to be accessible.
    • Re:Really bad. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SEE (7681) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:53PM (#16073227) Homepage
      Um, no. It isn't a judge's job to advocate legislation. It's a judge's job to apply existing law to specific cases. It's exactly the judge's job to interpret 'service' and 'accessible', and to then explain how he reached those conculsions in his opinion (thus "case law" and "precedent"). That's how the Anglo-American system of law has worked for several centuries now.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MP3Chuck (652277)
      "How do you define 'accessible'?"

      I'd point you to section508.gov [section508.gov], but ... it's inaccessible (i.e. "Firefox can't establish a connection to the server at www.section508.gov"). Granted, Section 508 only legally applies to government agencies, but I would imagine (IANAL, of course) that compliance by commercial websites would be sufficient in cases like this.

      WAI [w3.org]'s WCAG [w3.org] might be a good place to start if you're concerned about whether your site is accessible. I'm also pretty sure there are Section 508 and WCAG
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DragonWriter (970822)
      A judge's job is to interpret the laws that exist, not to "call for" new laws. And, here, the judge only allowed only the parts of the claim relating to information concerning Target's physical stores to go forward, and threw out the rest of the claims. So it seems that the judge feels that the applicable laws (both the ADA and the state law at issue) is already clear: inasmuch as the features of a website pertain to the use of a physical facility, they may be within the coverage of those laws.
  • by bryan8m (863211) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:12PM (#16073067)
    I'm considering adding braille to my website and building ramps between pages for those in wheelchairs.
  • by El Cubano (631386) <roberto.connexer@com> on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:13PM (#16073074) Homepage
    This is one time where I would say that reading the article is a waste of time. In fact, the article is actually an advertisement for this Minshare outfit. There are eight paragraphs in the article and five of them are about Mindshare and nothing else. Can we please find better material for the front page of slashdot?
  • Good. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Virak (897071) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:14PM (#16073077) Homepage
    Maybe this'll get all those so called 'web designers' to realize that there's more to web sites than making them look pretty.
    • Some people, when confronted with a problem, think "I know, I'll use regular expressions." Now they have two problems.

      The first problem of which is obviously "What am I going to do with all this free time I have now?", but what's the second?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cvd6262 (180823)
      I was once a graphic design major, but I got fed up with the attitude of "designers" and relegated it to a minor instead (I had enough credits at that point).

      My design background, which was colored by engineering, had emphasized working within the boundaries set by the project and/or needs of the client. You're right that many web site designers feel that form is all that matters, functionality be damned.

      In fact, many graphic designers (who would be better called "visual artists") feel that to bend their vi
  • Same in the U.K. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Phil John (576633) <phil AT webstarsltd DOT com> on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:14PM (#16073079)
    It's the same situation in the U.K. The Disability Discrimination Act specifies that any place of business must be accessible to people with disabilities (including web-sites).

    I see the legislation as a "good thing", the internet is the great leveller, many people who otherwise would find it hard to make purchases or converse in real life find fewer barriers.

    It goes further than just visually impaired visitors however, you have to take into account things like colour-blindness, essential tremor (so big chunky web 2.0 buttons are fine!).

    All of our sites and web apps (including admin backends) have been fully DDA compliant for several years now. Being compliant makes business sense, it doesn't cost much more to build it in from the start and then you increase your potential client base - plus you get a warm fuzzy feeling when you know you're not preventing people from accessing your services.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by LordLucless (582312)
      it doesn't cost much more to build it in from the start

      If you're building from the start, that is. If you've already got a huge, existing website, then it can be quite the PITA

      Not to mention that without any legally-defined standards, you can just be sued by someone with a disability you haven't considered. What if your site's navigation is too complex for a person with mental retardation to use? What if a double-amputee is trying to use your site with no arms? What if someone is dyslexic, and can't re
  • More information (Score:5, Informative)

    by fragmer (900198) <fragmer@@@gmail...com> on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:20PM (#16073099)
    Yahoo Finance News article [yahoo.com] has detailed information on the ruling.
  • A company didn't make it's website accessable to the blind, and they're getting sued? How does that make sense? They don't HAVE to sell their products to blind people if they don't want to...

    What's next, suing Target for not sending out braille catalogs?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by SEE (7681)
      They don't HAVE to sell their products to blind people if they don't want to...

      Actually, in the United States, they do have to even if they don't want to, because Congress and the first President Bush enacted a law to that effect.
  • Or is just a "developed nation" thing? There seems to be a workable lawsuit for anything that one person doesn't like about something else. To the best of my knowledge, Target doesn't have a monopoly on any essential product. Nor do they prevent anyone from coming to their store. Suing them do the design of their website for all things is ridiculous.
  • by SocialEngineer (673690) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [adnapdetrevni]> on Saturday September 09, 2006 @07:26PM (#16073128) Homepage

    I've been making a huge push for standards compliance - and it looks like those of us who still fight for it might finally have their voices heard. I just finished up a design contract for a hospital, recently - one where their current (soon to be old) website was all but easily usable by the blind.

    For those of you who think that the blind don't surf, they do; Do you think TTS readers are just so you can make your computer say naughty words? There are numerous blind users on the web.

    While transitioning from crap to standards compliance is a pain in the butt to do, once you are there, it is usually smooth sailing (assuming you have an experienced designer do the site). I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to manage some of my current web projects while using tables for layout, and whatnot.

    Now, if only IE would catch up on the standards game..

    • Just wait till you're sued by a Parkinson's victim because your buttons are too small. Your never going to be able to create a website that caters for every variety of disability in the world - and now you can be sued because of it.
  • Unconstitutional (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Antony-Kyre (807195)
    I would think what this judge did violates the 1st Amendment.
  • Are you saying Slashdot can sue Kuro5hin??
    • by Jugalator (259273)
      Ugh, thought this was about suing for similar designs, not for accessibility design crap.
      Well, there's the sound my silly joke falling flat on its face. :-(
  • ...but note that only the claims related to information related to the physical stores were allowed to proceed, those related to online services/information not related to the physical stores were thrown out.

    And even those that were allowed forward simply allow the plaintiffs to make the case that the law was violated.
  • There's more to it (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Expertus (1001346)
    This article did not have much detail, but some [com.com] reports [sfgate.com] from February when the suit was initially brought provide a bit more insight.

    the suit charges that visual information is missing "alt-text," or invisible code that allows screen readers to detect and vocalize a description of an image. In addition, the site lacks accessible image maps, an impediment to jumping to different site destinations

    If all Target had to do was add some alt-text to their images, it seems foolish for them to refuse to do so - wh

  • Anyone remember: OMG! Ponies!!!
  • by koreth (409849) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:04PM (#16073277)
    Can you sue over designs that are so obnoxious they cause you to go blind?
  • by slightlyspacey (799665) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:21PM (#16073367)
    Just a few years ago, a federal judge ruled [zdnet.com] that the ADA only applies to physical spaces. From the article:

    In the first case of its kind, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies only to physical spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters, and not to the Internet.

    "To expand the ADA to cover 'virtual' spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards," Seitz wrote in a 12-page opinion dismissing the case. "The plain and unambiguous language of the statute and relevant regulations does not include Internet Web sites."


    Since you now have a couple of federal judges in different districts disagreeing with each other, the Supreme Court may ultimately decide this one.
  • by twitter (104583) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:34PM (#16073425) Homepage Journal
    Dateline, Nighmare in Redmond: Microsoft Declares Victory Over World Wide Web.

    Putting their best spin on recent web news, Microsoft spokesvole Andy Nonymous told reporters gathered at a press conference about M$'s radical new Interweb.

    "For years we've been telling the free software terrorists that they were bad for business and their work was hurting disabled people and killing puppies, this drives the point home."

    "We stood silent as Sendmail replaced the far more disable friendly US Post Office, but formulated a plan." At this he cackled like a fiend. "We made M$ Word the default editor for email, though most people rejected this. It really hurt us to see the demise of 3m word attachments as a means of conveying 1k of text."

    "As Apache on Linux [netcraft.com] took over the world wide web, we were stunned and shaken that people who wanted to stay in business avoided our IIS unless we paid them to use it."

    "It was in Mass. that we finally realized that our email strategy right all along. M$ Word is the only blind free format in existence and we are now pressing for it's use as a standard for all interweb pages! This is indeed the cheap and easy solution the good people at Mindcraft are talking about. Victory at last."

    A stunned silence settled on the conference. One or two hands came up but and Nonymous nodded off stage.

    A huge, sweaty, bald man with a chair then danced onto the stage carrying a $2,000, 75lb office chair raised over his head. "Any questions?" he asked through a truly demented grin [google.com]. And there were none. He had fucking killed them.

  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @08:48PM (#16073518) Homepage

    This wasn't a decision that websites have to be "accessable". The judge just refused to dismiss the suit in the preliminary stages. The judge also refused to compel Target to make the site "accessable" during the litigation. So this just means that there's enough of a question to proceed to trial. It's not a "decision". Computerworld [computerworld.com] has a better story on this.

  • Existing racket (Score:3, Informative)

    by Frankie70 (803801) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @09:23PM (#16073656)
    This is an existing racket which has just been ported to the web.

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_1_the_ada_shak edown.html [city-journal.org]
    http://www.theconservativevoice.com/articles/artic le.html?storyid=5543 [theconservativevoice.com]
    http://blog.mises.org/archives/001453.asp [mises.org]

  • Today's Karma Burn (Score:4, Insightful)

    by caudron (466327) on Saturday September 09, 2006 @10:14PM (#16073868) Homepage
    I see a lot of comments lambasting the lawsuit, but I have to say I don't see the problem.

    Making a site 508 compliant [section508.gov] is not really all that hard and it essentially consists of making sure your site validates as XHTML 1.0 (preferably 1.0 Strict) or even better, XHTML 1.1. Do that and you are about 90% of the way there. The rest consists of actually knowing html and using it correctly. Learn to use labels, fieldsets, and other html elements that have been largely ignored, despite being quite useful. Actually use the alt tags for images of consequence. In other words, if you've designed a site that complies with web standards, you have little to worry about with this lawsuit. If you haven't, then now you know why we have and push standards. Consider it a lesson learned and move forward a wiser developer.

    The only downside to writing a site to be 508 compliant is that AJAX must be used carefully. Screen readers still don't detect client-side content changes well, so client-side dynamic content is slightly more limited, requiring a few more postbacks that you would normally use. But if you know what you are doing, those sorts of "intrusions" to your normal programming work are almost inconsequential. One caveat: Don't trust that Visual Studio 2005 and IIS will give you compliant code, even if they say they will. They won't.

    You need to know a little something about real web development but the end your site will be better, cleaner, and more easily maintainable. I've done it. It's ain't that hard.

    Tom Caudron
    http://tom.digitalelite.com/ [digitalelite.com]

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