A federal judge ruled late Monday that government requests for detailed information about Amazon.com customers violate Internet users' rights to free speech, anonymity, and privacy.
The ruling came in a lawsuit originally brought by Amazon to stop the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR) from collecting personally identifiable information about customers that could be linked to their specific purchases on Amazon. The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, and ACLU of Washington intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of several Amazon.com customers whose information was at stake.
Recognizing that government requests for such information can have an unconstitutional chilling effect on First Amendment rights, U.S. District Court Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the Western District of Washington wrote:
“The First Amendment protects a buyer from having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music, and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government. Citizens are entitled to receive information and ideas through books, films, and other expressive materials anonymously. … The fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening, and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
According to the lawsuit (Amazon.com, LLC v. Kenneth R. Lay) filed by Amazon in April, NCDOR issued a request for the purchase records from August 2003 through February 2010 of customers with a North Carolina shipping address as part of a tax audit of Amazon. Amazon provided NCDOR with product codes that reveal the exact items purchased – including books on the subjects of mental health, alcoholism and LGBT issues – but withheld individually identifiable user information that could be linked back to the individual purchases, including names and addresses. NCDOR refused to agree that it is not entitled to such information, leading to the lawsuit.
“This ruling is a victory for privacy and free speech on the Internet. The court has emphasized what other courts have found before – that government officials cannot watch over our shoulders to see what we are buying and reading,” said Sarah Dunne, Legal Director for the ACLU of Washington.
The ACLU is not disputing North Carolina’s authority to collect taxes on the purchases at issue in the lawsuit.
Handling the case were ACLU of Washington legal director Sarah Dunne and cooperating attorney Venkat Balabrasumani of the Focal PLLC firm; Aden Fine and Ben Siracusa-Hillman of the national ACLU; and Katy Parker of the ACLU of North Carolina.