Judge Allows Amazon Users To Fight To Keep Identities From North Carolina Department Of Revenue

Giving a boost to some North Carolina Amazon users, a judge has ruled that residents who oppose the state's attempt to learn their identities may intervene in a lawsuit to block disclosure.

The residents "have demonstrated that they have significant protectable interests in this case under the First and Fourteenth Amendments," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle. She added that even though the residents are allied with Amazon, they are entitled to make their own arguments rather than rely on the online retailer's stance. Pechman additionally decided that the residents can proceed in court without providing their names.

The ACLU, which is representing the Amazon users, praised the ruling. "This decision allows our clients -- who the court also permitted to proceed anonymously in order to protect their privacy -- to have their own voices heard in this proceeding as the court determines their rights to privacy and free expression."

The legal battle stems from a demand by the North Carolina Department of Revenue for records of every Amazon purchase made by residents since 2003. The state says it needs this information for tax purposes.

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But Amazon argues that turning over this data would compromise its customers' privacy as well as their rights to free expression -- which include the right to read anonymously. The company filed a lawsuit in federal district court seeking a court preventing North Carolina from demanding this information.

The ACLU is intervening on behalf of six anonymous residents as well as one local politician, Cecil Bothwell.

Amazon says in its court papers that it provided "detailed records" for around 50 million purchases, but has so far refused to turn over customers' names and addresses. "Furnishing this additional information to a taxingauthority, which would reveal the beliefs, interests and intimate personal details of its customers, serves no valid purpose and would violate basic constitutional principles," the company says in a motion for summary judgment.

North Carolina argues that Amazon's case should be dismissed for several reasons, including that the authorities need information from the company for tax purposes. "It is beyond dispute that customer names are critical in order to determine use tax liability," the state argues. "It is also undisputed that Amazon has failed to collect and remit sales taxes on the purchases by its North Carolina customers. As a result, those customers are liable for the use tax under North Carolina law."

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