Bothwell, an atheist, authored a book in 2008 trashing Rev. Billy Graham. When Bothwell was elected to Asheville's city council last year, opponents seized on that book, "The Prince of War," as well as Bothwell's own atheism, in an attempt to block him from taking his seat. (North Carolina's state constitution attempts to bar non-believers from holding office, but courts have long ruled that religious tests for elected positions are illegal.)
Though the anti-Bothwell effort was unsuccessful, the experience left him concerned about his privacy as well as that of his readers -- people who, unlike him, aren't public figures.
Now Bothwell, along with six anonymous North Carolina residents, is getting involved in a lawsuit brought by Amazon that aims to block the state from obtaining people's purchase records.
North Carolina's Department of Revenue says it wants the information to police its tax laws. The state is seeking records of every Amazon purchase made by residents since 2003. But the seven objectors, backed by the ACLU, rightly argue that the government is trampling on people's privacy and their free speech rights to read anonymously.
"As a public official, Mr. Bothwell is aware that information about anything he purchases -- regardless of its content -- may appear in the press or become political fodder for use by opponents," the ACLU says in its court papers, filed in federal district court in Seattle. "Mr. Bothwell does not want the state to know which individuals have purchased books he has written and/or authored, both because he believes that the state should not be collecting and retaining information about what people are reading, and because he knows that his readers and customers could face retaliation and adverse consequences if their purchases became publicly known."
The ACLU makes similar arguments on behalf of the other residents. One, identified as the general counsel of a global firm, has purchased books "with overt political leanings," authored by Michael Moore and Al Franken. "She does not want the state to know about her political leanings or the other private details of her life that can be pieced together from the over 200 items that she has purchased from Amazon since 2003," the lawsuit says.
It's safe to say that many people who make purchases on Amazon assume the company will protect their privacy. And, while much of the recent debate about data sharing has focused on the behind-the-scenes transfer of aggregate information, there's almost nothing that violates people's privacy more than disclosing information about them to the government.
Hopefully, the court will tell North Carolina officials that to figure out how to enforce the state's tax laws without also compromising residents' rights.