Public Accomodation in Cyberspace?
Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, almost anyone operating a public accommodation has been banned from discriminating on a wide variety of factors considered “immutable characteristics.” Good arguments exist for and against this in law, but because it lets in more customers, of course, nondiscrimination is good for business anyway.
With the exception of “reasonable accommodation” for the handicapped, however, people have never read the law to require that businesses make affirmative efforts to serve any particular group. To my knowledge, nobody has ever tried to force Allen Edmonds to make women’s shoes or Victoria’s Secret to carry men’s underwear. Yet now it appears that some gay activists want to force eharmony.com to provide gay dating services. While I think this article could make its point better if it dropped the sneering anti-gay tone, I couldn’t agree more with its fundamental point. The lawsuit makes no sense by even the most extreme reading of civil rights laws.
It strikes me that there’s an even broader point: A great many of the costs of discrimination exist because it takes place in the physical world. Colin Powell, famously, could not find a place to stay or even use the bathroom when he traveled through the Jim Crow-era South.
The Internet makes many forms of discrimination close to impossible. (Even if cyber-store owners wanted to, how could they figure out who belongs to whatever group they seek to discriminate against?) But, when an online business owner does discriminate, it’s almost always for a very particular reason related to the very nature of the business. So I don’t think that the idea of a public accommodation really has any meaning on the Internet. Nearly all commercial websites are open to anyone with a computer. Those that choose not to serve certain groups typically have to go through a good deal of work to identify those groups. Whatever happens, however, they don’t do any harm.