The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a brief on behalf of our clients who are challenging the North Carolina Department of Revenue's requests for records regarding Amazon.com 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. Their purchase records reveal highly personal and intimate details about their lives. For
example, people 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 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 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
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.
Lists that identify the titles of books, music, and movies purchased by Amazon.com customers are protected by Free Speech rights guaranteed by the US Constitution, a federal judge has ruled.
The landmark ruling by US District Judge Marsha J. Pechman of Seattle, was a sharp rebuke of North Carolina's DOR, or Department of Revenue, which in December ordered Amazon to turn over sales data for all customers with a shipping address within
the state who made purchases from 2003 to 2010. Amazon, which says it has conducted almost 50 million transactions with North Carolina residents during that time, filed suit in April arguing that request threatened anyone who may have bought
controversial or sensitive titles.
Judge Pechman agreed: The First Amendment protects a buyer from having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music, and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government, she wrote in a ruling: 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.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which joined the case on behalf of several Amazon customers, hailed the decision: This ruling is a victory for privacy and free speech on the internet, a legal director for the organization said in a
statement. The court has emphasized what other courts have found before – that government officials cannot watch over our shoulders to see what we are buying and reading.