ACLU of North Carolina Calls upon NC Department of Revenue to Respect the Privacy and First Amendment Rights of North Carolina Consumers Who Use

April 21, 2010 12:00 am

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RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC) today called upon the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR) to narrow the scope of a demand for customer data issued in March pursuant to its ongoing audit of Amazon. According to news reports and a complaint filed by Amazon Monday against NCDOR in federal court in Seattle, Washington, in NCDOR’s attempts to ensure that Amazon is in full compliance with North Carolina’s sales and use tax laws, the Department is demanding that Amazon turn over personally identifiable information linked to specific purchasing records for customers in North Carolina who have purchased books, movies, music, and other items containing expressive content going all the way back to August 2003.

According to the Amazon lawsuit, compliance with the NCDOR’s demands would reveal the identities of hundreds of thousands of Amazon customers in North Carolina who have purchased more than 30 million lawful expressive works from Amazon in the last 6½ years and would identify specifically which books, movies, music and other expressive works were purchased by which customers. The Complaint lists examples of books that North Carolinians have purchased, including books on such sensitive topics as bipolar disorder, living with alcoholism, infertility, and how to come out of the closet as a member of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community, as well as sensitive movies and works of music on controversial topics. Amazon’s lawsuit alleges that NCDOR’s demands violate the First Amendment to the US Constitution, various provisions of the Washington State Constitution, and a 1998 federal law called the Video Privacy Protection Act.

The following statement was faxed to Secretary Kenneth Lay at the NCDOR this morning and may be attributed to Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina:

“We recognize that North Carolina is in a tight budget crunch and the NCDOR is unquestionably justified in conducting an audit of out-of-state companies such as Amazon to be sure the companies are paying their fair share of sales and use taxes under North Carolina law. However, it is unconstitutional and wholly unnecessary for the NCDOR to gain access to private customer records that reveal which specific customers in North Carolina have ordered which specific books, music, or movies in order for the NCDOR to complete its audit. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of privacy and a First Amendment right to read, hear or view a broad range of popular and unpopular expressive materials without their choices being subjected to unnecessary government scrutiny. Furthermore, the NCDOR’s demands threaten to have a major chilling effect on future consumers’ expressive choices because if the government can access people’s purchase histories and review the content of their private selections, many consumers will choose not to access sensitive material or information.

“What people choose to read, view or listen to says a lot about who we are, what we value, and what we believe. That’s why we should be able to learn about anything from politics to religion to health without worrying that the government is looking over our shoulder. We therefore call upon the North Carolina Department of Revenue to respect the privacy and First Amendment rights of North Carolina consumers and to amend its March Information Request to exclude any demands that seek disclosure of personally identifiable customer data.”

The ACLU-NC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with approximately 7,000 members and supporters statewide, dedicated to the preservation of civil liberties and individual freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution and corresponding provisions in the North Carolina Constitution and various state and federal laws.

Amazon’s complaint is posted on our website at:

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