Blog of Rights

Court Rules North Carolina Not Entitled to Amazon Customer Information

By Ben Siracusa Hillman, Speech, Privacy and Technology Project & Ben Siracusa Hillman, Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 5:49pm

Late yesterday, the federal district court in Seattle, Washington, ruled that the North Carolina Department of Revenue’s demands for detailed information about the purchases of Amazon.com customers violated the Constitution and the federal Video Privacy Protection Act.

North Carolina had asked for the records as part of a tax audit of Amazon. Amazon provided North Carolina with detailed information regarding the items purchased and the dates, amount of purchases, and county to which the items were shipped — the only information, North Carolina has acknowledged, that it needs to assess sales taxes. Amazon did not turn over records revealing its customers’ identities and linking customers to specific purchases, even though the requests called for such information. After North Carolina refused to back down from its demand for user information and Amazon sued, we intervened on behalf of several North Carolina residents who feared that disclosure of the books, movies, music, and other items they had purchased would reveal highly personal and intimate details of their lives.

The court agreed with what we have been saying all along: the government has no right to know such personal information. We applaud the court’s ruling, the latest in a line of decisions making clear that the First Amendment limits the government’s ability to seek information about individuals’ reading, listening, or viewing choices. The court concluded, as we argued, that even the prospect of the government tracking these choices is harmful because it might cause any of us to fear buying perfectly legal materials online. As Judge Marsha J. Pechman wrote in her ruling:

The First Amendment protects a buyer from having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music, and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government. Citizens are entitled to receive information and ideas through books, films, and other expressive materials anonymously. . . . The fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening, and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights.

We all have the right to receive information and ideas anonymously. The First Amendment and Video Privacy Protection Act cannot be ignored simply because the state wants the information for tax purposes.

Although the court’s ruling concerns only the specific request issued to Amazon, North Carolina has apparently issued similar requests to over 400 other Internet retailers, and previously indicated that it plans to issue more such requests in the future. We hope that the court’s decision causes North Carolina to reconsider its approach. Requesting information about what people are purchasing online causes real harm, to real people, and it is unconstitutional in these circumstances. That is why we will continue to fight against government requests for this information that is so personal and private, and so fundamental to our society.

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