ACLU Intervenes in Lawsuit To Protect Amazon Users’ Personal Information

News Release: 
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Update: The U.S. District Court today granted the ACLU’s motion to intervene in the Amazon case and the motion to proceed using pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the individuals whom the ACLU is representing.

June 23, 2010

Requests by the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR) for detailed information about customers are unconstitutional because they violate Internet users’ rights to free speech, anonymity and privacy, according to a complaint filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and ACLU of Washington. On behalf of several customers, the ACLU intervened in an existing lawsuit brought by Amazon to stop NCDOR from collecting personally identifiable information that could be linked to their specific purchases on Amazon.

“The Constitution does not permit government agencies to conduct such sweeping collections of our personal and private information,” said Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Disclosing the purchase records of thousands of Amazon customers would violate their constitutional rights to read and purchase the lawful materials of their choice, free from government intrusion.”

“Whether online or in traditional stores, the First Amendment protects the rights of all individuals to read books, view films, and buy other items without the government keeping tabs on what they choose to read, watch, or purchase,” said Brian Alseth, Director of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project. “We are taking legal action in order to safeguard consumers’ rights.”

The ACLU filed the case on behalf of six anonymous North Carolina residents (Does 1-6) and Cecil Bothwell, an elected public official, who do not think the government should be able to find out the personal, private information their purchasing records reveal. The plaintiffs include:

  • Jane Doe 1, who purchased books on self-help and how to get a divorce and a restraining order after her former spouse developed substance abuse problems and threatened to kill her;
  • Jane Doe 2, the general counsel of a global corporation, who has purchased books and movies with overt political leanings as well as books that may reveal her religious beliefs;
  • Jane Doe 3, who has purchased books on mental health in order to better understand the conditions afflicting her former spouse, including “Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone Your Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder,” as well as books about cancer, including “Cancer: 50 Essential Things To Do: Revised and Updated,” by Greg Anderson. She has also purchased books on atheism. She is not public about her personal beliefs and doesn’t want others to find out;
  • Jane Doe 4, who has received several politically-charged items through Amazon from her parents, including “Obama Zombies: How The Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation,” by Jason Mattera. Jane Doe 4 is a law school student who would like to one day work in the public sector, and she is concerned that her career prospects may be impaired if her personal and political beliefs are disclosed;
  • Jane Doe 5, the parent of Jane Doe 4, who is a Florida resident, but whose information has been caught up in NCDOR’s request. She does not want the government to know which books she has decided to purchase for her child;
  • Jane Doe 6, whose purchases include books with sensitive and potentially controversial subject matters; and
  • Cecil Bothwell, an elected city official, author and proprietor of a publishing house who has both purchased and sold potentially controversial books on Amazon. He is an atheist, which his political opponents seized on following his election because of a provision in the North Carolina Constitution that purports to prohibit anyone who “shall deny the being of Almighty God” from holding public office. He is joining the lawsuit on behalf of himself and his readers and customers, whose information has also been sought by NCDOR.

According to the lawsuit filed by Amazon in April in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, NCDOR issued a request to Amazon for the purchase records since August 2003 of customers with a North Carolina shipping address as part of a tax audit of Amazon. Amazon has already provided NCDOR with product codes that reveal the exact items purchased – including books on the subjects of mental health, alcoholism and LGBT issues. Amazon has withheld individually identifiable user information that could be linked back to the individual purchases, including names and addresses, but NCDOR has refused to agree that it is not entitled to such information.

The ACLU in May sent a letter to North Carolina Secretary of Revenue Kenneth Lay, informing him that the ACLU would take legal action if NCDOR persisted in its demand for constitutionally-protected information. 

In addition to Fine and Parker, attorneys on the case are Mariko Hirose of the ACLU, Sarah Dunne of the ACLU of Washington and ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Venkat Balasubramani of the Focal PLLC law firm.