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ACLU Intervenes in Lawsuit to Protect Amazon Customers' Privacy

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June 23, 2010

Today, the ACLU intervened in a lawsuit filed by against the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR) for its unreasonable demand for customer purchase information.

In December 2009, as part of a tax audit, the NCDOR requested the records of customers in that state for purchases made between August 1, 2003, and February 28, 2010. Amazon complied by providing the NCDOR with a list of the exact items that had been purchased in that time frame and their cost.

But the NCDOR thinks it’s entitled to more than that. In March 2010, the NCDOR demanded that Amazon also reveal who bought what, and threatened to issue a summons against Amazon if it did not receive the information. Amazon sued the NCDOR in April (PDF) to fight this demand.

In May, we sent a letter to the NCDOR informing it that these requests were unreasonable and unconstitutional. They’re a violation of individuals’ First Amendment rights to purchase and read lawful materials of their choice. After all, why does the Revenue Department need to know what you’re buying on Amazon? In our letter, we warned that if it didn’t drop its demand for this very private information, we would intervene in the lawsuit Amazon filed.

Which brings us to today. NCDOR refused to withdraw its requests or acknowledge that it’s not entitled to this information, so we’re intervening in the lawsuit. Our case is on behalf of six anonymous individuals who have purchased or received Amazon items in North Carolina, and Cecil Bothwell, an elected public official, who do not think the government should be able to find out the personal, private information their purchasing records reveal.

You might not think about it while you’re shopping online, but what you buy reveals a lot about you. Among the items Amazon customers in North Carolina purchased are books about cancer, mental health, divorce and atheism. All issues you might agree are pretty personal.

The government isn’t entitled to know who is buying what. We hope the judge agrees.

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