ACLU Asks Court To Declare Amazon Records Confidential

Cecil Bothwell, a public official in Asheville, N.C., says he has a particular interest in preventing other governmental officials from obtaining people's Amazon records.

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.

5 comments about "ACLU Asks Court To Declare Amazon Records Confidential".
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  1. Bruce May from Bizperity, June 25, 2010 at 4:13 p.m.

    Try living in the South for a while and you will feel the pressure to conform to the "right" way of thinking/believing/living... it can be oppressive to say the least. Wendy, you rightly point out that this is the real privacy battle and one that has been ongoing for over two hundred years, ever since the concept of individual rights was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The courts will always come down hard when limiting the right of the government here because the fist amendment rights (and privacy which is less well guaranteed in the Constitution) come together here in a big way. It was for reasons just like this that these rights were first written into the Constitution. Putting these issues into proper perspective (and priority) was a valuable insight to pass on.

  2. Michael Odza from Odza Consults/Social Media Lift, June 25, 2010 at 6:28 p.m.

    Next they'll want to measure our oxytocin levels to see whether we're enjoying what we read! (I still want to know what videos Judge Thomas rented, though.)

  3. Cecil Bothwell from Brave Ulysses Books, June 26, 2010 at 6:47 a.m.

    Just for the record, I take exception to the characterization of my biography of Graham as "trashing" him. I am an investigative reporter and spent five years sifting through presidential records and the Graham archives to reveal that his so-called "spiritual advice" to U.S. presidents from Truman forward consistently called for war. Graham believed that the U.S. was destined to Christianize the world and that our wars of invasion were justified on that basis. He even urged Nixon to commit genocide in Vietnam. This is not "trashing" it is reporting unreported news. There is a meaningful difference.

  4. Jamie Morton from Federated Media , June 28, 2010 at 10:40 a.m.

    I definitely don't believe that this information should be given for tax purposes, but I also believe we have to be careful with the "protective" laws we push as well. There are always people that will hide behind safety barriers most of us want in order to get away with things they typically couldn't get away with. To be quite honest, I know next to nothing about law. However, while reading this it worried me that by sealing this records, we could be keeping the police/goverment from doing their jobs when it comes to tracking crimes (murderers trails could lead here, victims of identity theft, etc). They could be stopped by something that was meant to protect others.

    Maybe we need to gage the response and find a solution from another angle?

  5. Gregory Yankelovich from Amplified Analytics Inc, June 29, 2010 at 5:56 p.m.

    @Bruce may - try living in the SF Bay and you will feel the pressure to conform to the "left".....Unfortunately I have already seen this movie and know how it ends. With all these battles for our right to privacy people don't seem to think twice about publishing very private information online. I do agree though that it has to be our choice, not government's.

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