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“Trust Us” Isn’t Good Enough

Sarah Roberts,
Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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September 21, 2010

Yesterday, the ACLU filed a brief on behalf of our clients who are challenging the North Carolina Department of Revenue’s requests for records regarding customer purchases as part of a tax audit of Amazon. Those requests would reveal which individuals purchased which books, movies, music, and other private items through Amazon, from August 2003-February 2010. Last month, the federal court in the Western District of Washington granted our motion to intervene on behalf of our anonymous clients, whose purchase records reveal highly personal and intimate details about their lives. For example, our clients bought books on topics such as cancer, mental health issues, divorce, and atheism. The government has no right to know this kind of personal information, and we’re confident that the First Amendment prohibits the government from obtaining that information here.

The brief we filed yesterday is a response to North Carolina’s attempt to dismiss the case. The government essentially contends that their actions are permissible because they don’t intend to use this information for anything other than tax collection. But “trust us” isn’t good enough. Just knowing that the government may be keeping an eye on you is enough for many people, including our clients, to reconsider buying books and other expressive materials online. That’s especially true given that the government has a less than stellar track record when it comes to keeping private information safe.

North Carolina admits that they don’t need to know who is purchasing which specific books, movies, and music in order to collect taxes. But they still won’t destroy the information that Amazon has already given them — showing which titles were purchased — and they continue to ask for customer names and addresses, which would allow them to find out exactly who purchased what. What makes this worse is that North Carolina thinks it can do this again, both with Amazon and with other websites. In fact, as we’ve learned, North Carolina has issued virtually identical records requests to other Internet retailers, including ones who sell books and videos, and plans to issue more of these requests in the future.

Many of these other Internet retailers may lack either the resources or the will to defend their customers’ First Amendment rights, so it is even more imperative that the court stop this practice now. Until it does, each one of us will have to think twice about what we buy online.

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