Final Settlement of Lawsuit Protects Amazon Users’ Privacy and Free Speech Rights
North Carolina Department of Revenue Will Stop Requesting Purchase Titles from Internet Retailers
The North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR) has agreed to stop asking for personally identifiable customer information in combination with details about the titles of customers’ purchases from Internet retailers. The agreement came in the settlement of a lawsuit originally brought by Amazon to stop NCDOR from collecting such information. The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina and ACLU of Washington intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of several Amazon customers whose private information was at stake.
A federal judge ruled in October that the government requests for detailed information about Amazon.com customers violate Internet users' rights to free speech, anonymity and privacy.
“This settlement will go a long way toward protecting the privacy and free speech rights of online customers in North Carolina and hopefully elsewhere,” said Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Americans have a right to read and purchase the lawful materials of their choice without fearing that the government is looking over their shoulders. These intrusive requests were at odds with fundamental principles of our democracy, and we are glad they will come to an end.”
According to the lawsuit filed by Amazon in April, NCDOR issued a request to Amazon 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.
According to the settlement, NCDOR will include a statement on any “information document request” (IDR) issued to an Internet retailer that sells books, movies, music or other expressive items, which also includes a request for customer names, stating: “This IDR does not request the names, titles or other identifying information from which names and titles can be derived of the books, movies, music or other expressive items sold.”
“The North Carolina Department of Revenue does not need access to private customer records that reveal which specific customers in North Carolina have ordered which specific books, music or movies in order to complete its audit of Amazon and collect any taxes owed,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “We are pleased that the public’s First Amendment rights have been upheld by this settlement, which prohibits the Department from seeking this kind of information from Amazon or other Internet retailers in the future.”
In addition to Fine, attorneys on the case are Ben Siracusa-Hillman of the ACLU, Katy Parker of the ACLU of North Carolina, Sarah Dunne of the ACLU of Washington and cooperating attorney Venkat Balasubramani of the Focal PLLC law firm.
More information about the case, Amazon.com, LLC v. David W. Hoyle, is available online at: www.aclu.org/free-speech-technology-and-liberty/amazoncom-llc-v-kenneth-r-lay