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North Carolina Wants to Know What You Bought from Amazon

While the facts of this particular case remain murky, it is crystal clear that the government is interested in what you're reading.
Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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April 21, 2010

On Monday, Amazon.com sued the State of North Carolina after the state issued a summons that would, according to Amazon, require it to identify what books, CDs and DVDs its customers in North Carolina had purchased. The North Carolina Department of Revenue had requested this information to ensure that Amazon is in full compliance with the state’s sales and use tax laws.

We were alarmed at this news, because what people choose to read is deeply personal, and reader privacy is strongly protected by the First Amendment.

After the ACLU of North Carolina sent the state Department of Revenue a letter warning that it would be unconstitutional for the state to gain overbroad access to customer records, the state responded to Amazon’s lawsuit, denying that it wanted to know the specific titles and subject matters of books. We are relieved that the state appears to recognize the inappropriate, intrusive and constitutionally suspect nature of such a demand.

While the facts of this particular case remain murky, it is crystal clear that the government is interested in what you’re reading. This is not the first time Amazon.com has received and fought such requests. In 2006, Amazon received a subpoena (PDF) for the book purchase records of 24,000 people — a subpoena a court described as seriously troubling because, if it became widely known that the government sought book purchase records, “the chilling effect would frost keyboards across America.”

Our right to read what we choose, free from government intrusion, is too valuable to give up when the government doesn’t have a warrant based on probable cause. Reading in private allows people to explore ideas, even those that may be unpopular, and this kind of freedom is both intrinsically valuable and essential to our democracy, which after all is premised on the idea that untrammeled debate and intellectual exploration leads to good government. That is why the ACLU is calling on Congress to pass legislation that would make it clear that the government needs a warrant with notice for all sensitive electronic information, including book records. We hope you will join our efforts.

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