Local Politics

ACLU threatens to join Amazon customer privacy fight

Posted May 20, 2010

— The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is telling the state Department of Revenue to back off on a request for "constitutionally protected private information" of Amazon.com customers.

In a letter Thursday to Revenue Secretary Kenneth Lay, the group says it will join an existing lawsuit brought by the online retail giant if the department "persists in its demand" for North Carolina customers' names and addresses.

ACLU gets involved in Amazon privacy fight ACLU gets involved in online privacy dispute

"If the department persists in its demand that Amazon now additionally provide detailed user information … the constitutional rights of our clients and tens of thousands of North Carolina consumers will be violated," the letter states.

Amazon filed suit in federal court last month to block the department's attempt to get the information of those who bought or received items from the company since 2003.

"The ACLU is not taking issue with the department’s authority to collect taxes on the value of these purchases, but there is no legitimate reason why government officials need to know which North Carolina residents are reading what books or purchasing which specific brands of products," Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.

According to its lawsuit, Amazon has already provided the revenue department with data about the purchases, including product codes that reveal the exact items purchased.

State revenue officials have called the lawsuit "misleading," saying they never asked the retailer to turn over detailed information that would reveal personal preferences.

Lay re-emphasized in a statement late Thursday afternoon that the department is not interested in consumers' buying habits.

"The department does need a general product description – for example, "book" or "food." That description is necessary to determine the rate of tax, because different items are taxed at different rates," he said. "The department does not require the identification of customers' choices of expressive material."

The information would cover about 50 million purchases, Amazon has said.

Because Amazon has no offices or warehouses in North Carolina, the company isn't required to collect the customary sales tax on shipments.

North Carolina requests voluntary compliance from taxpayers, asking them to include a "consumer use tax" on their individual income tax returns for anything purchased or received through the mail.

By some estimates, the state loses $140 million a year in unpaid taxes from online sales.


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  • Alexia.1 May 21, 2010

    htomc42, sometimes it feels that way. Income tax, sales tax, use tax, gas tax, property tax, and this year-- a surtax! A tax on your taxes! Yes, they want it all. Spending it out of control, clearly.

    The government should have only one tax: income tax. Tax people once on whatever they earned as wages at a flat rate of, say, 20%. Everybody pays the same percentage of their income and then get rid of all of the other taxes. Appropriate the funds as required, but don't ask for another penny.

  • htomc42 May 21, 2010

    Why not just tax everything at 100%? Just cut this continuous drama and go ahead and make complete slaves of us all, that is the only direction they seem to be able to go, just go ahead and get it over with once and for all.

  • TomLynda May 21, 2010


    I'll agree with you. There are lots of things that are 'legal' that go against everything the Constitution states, and it's only going to get worse.

  • Alexia.1 May 21, 2010

    Garnerwolf1, I don't think we are saying different things. I agree the use tax is legal. This is not the issue. My issue is, and as you said, "NC can tax goods imported from another state all day long via the Use Tax". Yes, it's within its rights to do this, not because it taxing imported products, because that is unconstitutional, but because it has the right to have a use tax -- a tax on goods used in the state.

    It does not change the fact that this is, without question, an attempt by the state to bypass what the Constitution says. In my opinion, it's wrong and not in the spirit of the Constitution, but it's nonetheless legal.

  • Garnerwolf1 May 21, 2010

    paul: you're wrong. do some research. Start with N.C.G.S. 105-164.1 and Oscar Miller Contractor vs North Carolina Tax Rev. Bd. and In re Assessment of Additional N.C. & Orange County Use Taxes, 312 N.C. 211, 322 S.E. 2d 155 (appeal dismissed). N.C. and every other state, can tax goods imported from another state all day long via the Use Tax. It's been upheld, at one time or another, in virtually every District, State, and Federal court in the country. I don't think the State will ultimately win this fight with Amazon because their establishment of nexus is via the affliate program, but that's totally different than some Constitutional argument against the Use Tax in general.

  • ncguy May 21, 2010

    Here's Amazons next step- move operations to another country.
    How many jobs would be lost to foreign workers?

    this tax and spend goverment will push all business out of our country!

  • Alexia.1 May 21, 2010

    Garnerwolf1, I'm stating facts. Why was the use tax introduced? Does it apply to good purchased in the state? No. Can NC tax products imported from another state? No. So what did they do? They created a use tax. A use tax is absolutely an effort to usurp the Constitution. I didn't say it was unconstitutional. A state has the right to tax any property, including cars and children's toys if it wants to. It is, nonetheless, a means to tax products imported from another state.

  • newsmonkey May 21, 2010

    Here's a question I would like answered: For those of us who did file sales tax for our online purchases with our state tax return, is the DOR going to leave me alone?

    And here's another question: Why is the DOR only going after Amazon? Why not eBay, B&N, and thousands of other retail websites?

  • Garnerwolf1 May 21, 2010

    "Sadly, that's exactly what this law is: an attempt by NC to usurp the Constitution" Thanks, I needed a laugh to start Friday off. Your arguement just compared apples to llamas. The "use tax" in no way usurps anything, AND has been upheld by the SCOTUS time and time again. EVERY state that has a sales tax also has a use tax. You have a right not to agree with it, but at least get some vague idea of the actual facts.

  • Garnerwolf1 May 21, 2010

    "which North Carolina residents are reading what books or purchasing which specific brands of products". This will be simple - based on my understanding, they want to know if a customer purchased A book, not WHICH book. Big difference. The reason they want to know what type product was purchased is because we have so many different tax rates in this state (thanks lobbyists)so you have to know what product to know what tax rate applies. This ain't rocket science folks. Of course if Congress would do their jobs, this would not be an issue for the states.