Commentary

Amazon Ordered To Disclose Customers' Names

Amazon promises customers to protect the privacy of their information, including the merchandise they purchase. But a federal judge in Seattle apparently doesn't put much stock in the company's assurances to consumers.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart ordered Amazon to turn over the names of everyone who purchased certain WEN hair products -- which are at the center of a class-action lawsuit.

The judge ordered the disclosures so that lawyers in the class-action case can notify purchasers about a settlement. WEN's products allegedly led to a host of adverse effects, including hair loss. The company agreed to settle the case by paying $25 to everyone who purchased the conditioner, and up to $20,000 to people who had a bad reaction to it.

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The retailers QVC, Sephora and Overstock reportedly agreed to provide the information.

But Amazon said complying with the order would violate the company's promise to keep customers' information private. The company also pointed out that it hadn't been notified in advance about the request, and therefore wasn't able to appear in court and argue on behalf of its users.

"Amazon takes very seriously its customers’ privacy and the security of their confidential information. Inversely, customers rely on Amazon’s privacy policies and expect their personal data to be safe," the company wrote in a motion seeking to quash the subpoena. "Plaintiffs’ demand is doubly intrusive because it forces Amazon to violate its customers’ trust, and it invades those customers’ privacy without notice. plaintiffs assume that consumers would prioritize notice of a class action settlement recovery over the security of their personal data, but that is not a choice that plaintiffs or this court have the right to make."

Amazon also pointed out that there are other means of informing customers about the settlement -- including the traditional route of publishing notices about the agreement.

The lawyers who are seeking the information say it will be kept confidential. But Amazon argues that is not sufficient protection.

"Amazon is experienced and adept at protecting its customers’ information," the company said in its legal papers. "If Amazon is forced to disclose customer data to a third-party administrator that is unprepared to guard such data, and there is a subsequent breach or leak of customer identifying information, there is no mechanism whatsoever to protect Amazon."

This isn't the first time that Amazon has gone to court to defend its customers' privacy. Several years ago, the company successfully fought a North Carolina tax law that would have required Amazon to disclose the names of all state residents who made e-commerce purchases. The judge in that case ruled that North Carolina's request violated residents' free speech rights to purchase books and movies anonymously.

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