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eBay Lawsuit Asks: Is An E-Commerce Store Really “A Place Of Public Accommodation”?

Written by Evan Schuman
July 15th, 2013

An eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) court case poses a question that gets a lot more interesting the more you think about it: If an e-commerce site is used extensively by a large number of shoppers as their primary store, does it become subject to all of the laws that govern physical stores? The legal issue in this case involves a deaf seller who argued that accessibility laws required eBay and other e-tail sites to accommodate shoppers with vision and hearing difficulties.

The argument for the shopper speaks to the intent of the original legislation—or, more precisely, the intent of the legislators who crafted that initial legislation. Did they not indeed intend that if shoppers must go to public stores to make purchases, those stores must allow in and support all shoppers equally? The counter is that the law understandably makes no reference to e-commerce and that if Congress wants to pass such a law, great, but until it does, courts must assume that a law means what it says and nothing more.

The phrase at issue is “a place of public accommodation” and whether eBay—and, therefore, all major e-commerce sites—is one.

The plaintiff in this case is a hearing-impaired eBay prospective seller named Melissa Earll. Earll’s argument is that, when she applied to be an eBay seller, the registration process required the seller to receive an automated call that would speak a PIN that would then have to be entered online. That tactic was impossible for Earll, the filing said. “Alternatives to the phone-based verification system that would allow deaf individuals equal access to the services eBay provides are readily available, but eBay has affirmatively chosen to use its current system and refuses to make accommodations for the deaf.”

She argued that eBay today functions as a traditional storefront and must be treated accordingly. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 “must apply to eBay. Any other result frustrates the letter and spirit of the ADA. To rule otherwise would require this Court—which is located in close geographic proximity to the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Netflix, and countless other Internet-only businesses—to conclude that the Internet, in 2013, is not an important part of the social and economic mainstream in America. Such a conclusion is patently absurd.”

That said, the core of the case debates whether the legislation can be interpreted literally and both sides here push logic a bit in making their respective cases.


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One Comment | Read eBay Lawsuit Asks: Is An E-Commerce Store Really “A Place Of Public Accommodation”?

  1. A reader Says:

    That argument didn’t exactly work out for Target. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Federation_of_the_Blind_v._Target_Corporation
    But the parties settled, so the law wasn’t really tested.

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