Commentary

Amazon, ACLU Tangle With North Carolina Over Release Of Purchase Records

In an effort to police its tax laws, the state of North Carolina recently asked Amazon to turn over information about all purchases by state residents dating back to 2003.

Amazon rightly objected, arguing that the government's attempt to obtain records of consumers' purchases -- including purchases of books, magazines and movies -- violates their First Amendment rights and their right to privacy.

While obtaining records of any purchases obviously can violate buyers' privacy, obtaining information about the material people read, or the movies they watch, is especially problematic. Many consumers who might not care if someone knows they have purchased, say, a pair of earrings, would be very upset if their purchase of a book about, for instance, cancer treatment was revealed.

That's one reason why library groups have long fought to preserve the confidentiality of borrowers' records. It's also why library associations are wary of the Google Book Search deal. Last year, library groups filed court papers pointing out that the proposed settlement would allow Google to sell digitized books, but don't require the company to keep users' purchases confidential.

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Amazon last month filed papers in district court in Seattle seeking a declaratory judgment that the state's request would be unconstitutional. "The [Department of Revenue] does not need personally identifiable information about Amazon's customers in order to audit Amazon's compliance with state tax laws," the company argued.

Now the ACLU has entered the fracas. In a letter to North Carolina Department of Revenue Secretary Kenneth Lay, the civil liberties organization says it will seek to intervene in the lawsuit unless the state drops its request. "We have clients -- North Carolina residents who are Amazon customers and whose private records are at stake -- who are gravely concerned about government access to their purchasing records," the group states. "The information requested will reveal which North Carolina residents, including our clients, have received which specific books, movies, and other expressive and private items from Amazon."

The ACLU, which says it believes some information has already been turned over, is asking the state to destroy any data that's already been turned over. The group says it will file papers with the court unless the authorities respond to its request by May 28.

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