Local Politics

ACLU joins Amazon in privacy fight against N.C.

Posted June 23, 2010

— The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday joined a lawsuit filed by online retail giant Amazon.com against the North Carolina Department of Revenue over customer information.

Amazon filed suit in federal court in Seattle in April to block the department's attempt to get the names and addresses of North Carolina residents who bought or received items from the company since 2003.

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

The information the state wants would cover about 50 million purchases, according to the lawsuit.

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

“The Constitution does not permit government agencies to conduct such sweeping collections of our personal and private information,” Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement. “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.”

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.

The ACLU said it is representing six unidentified people, including three from Raleigh and one from Chapel Hill, and Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, an author and proprietor of a publishing house who says he has both purchased and sold potentially controversial books on Amazon.

The ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter last month to Revenue Secretary Kenneth Lay, asking that his agency drop its demand for customer information from Amazon.

“We had hoped the department would narrow the scope of its requests in order to protect privacy rights, and we are surprised and disappointed that it has become necessary for us to take legal action in order to safeguard consumers’ rights,” Katy Parker, the ACLU's state legal director, said in a statement.

“The ACLU is not taking issue with the department's authority to collect taxes on these purchases, but there is no legitimate reason why government officials need to know which North Carolina residents are reading which books or purchasing which specific brands of products,” Parker said.

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


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  • beef Jun 24, 2010

    Before you all get delirious cheering on the ACLU, I think you need to know that they have no problem with the government collecting taxes. If the state drops the demand for "what" and settles for "who" and "how much", which is all they really need to collect taxes, you will see the ACLU switch sides. Caesar will not be denied.

  • renaizzanceman Jun 23, 2010

    "Maybe if Perdue would stop begging for money from Obama and start focusing on cutting waste in NC government things will improve. Take care of our own....stop begging."
    OH yah... that'll happen. Ole Bevie needs her 800,000 parties too much to quit begging. It's time the citizens of NC demand an impeachment of her!

  • brand7976 Jun 23, 2010

    GOLO will turn your information over to the government in a heartbeat. You might already be on a watch list. I know I am.

  • soyousay Jun 23, 2010

    what..With Obama causing thousands upon thousands of private businesses to close down everyday people turn to the internet to do their shopping.

    Really, you actually really believe that...where have you been?

  • onedayatatime Jun 23, 2010

    From the stories I have read so far it sounds like Amazon has provided the information that the state requires regarding the purchases by NC residents. I.E. they gave NC DOR the dates, amounts, and SKU#s of the items purchased by NC residents as well as the shipping address. If NC DOR can't extrapolate the necessary information from that to bill an NC taxpayer, then they have no business, nor or they entitled, to any further information from Amazon in my opinion. I buy from Amazon and while I doubt anything they could get from Amazon would be worth anything to them, I don't want my NC tax $ going towards unnecessary information gathering. It sounds to me like the NC DOR is too lazy to sift thru the information they have, and they want Amazon to give them everything so they don't have to do any real work with what was provided.

  • Alexia.1 Jun 23, 2010

    "By some estimates, the state loses $140M a year in unpaid sales taxes". That sounds like a lot until you realize that there are 9.38M people in this state, so that works out to $15/person. They more than make up for that with the nonsense taxes they charge me when I go to McDonald's to eat. How can we get a petition going to get rid of the use tax provision that's causing this mess?

  • whatusay Jun 23, 2010

    With Obama causing thousands upon thousands of private businesses to close down everyday people turn to the internet to do their shopping. For NC to target internet business will only make things worse. This is either a state problem, or a federal problem. Maybe if Perdue would stop begging for money from Obama and start focusing on cutting waste in NC government things will improve. Take care of our own....stop begging.

  • nano Jun 23, 2010

    I'm on the same page as paulej. Plus, it's pretty creepy for DOR to know who bought what from Amazon.com, and why would DOR specifically nail Amazon.com instead of E-bay, as whatusay pointed out? As an aside, it's a good idea for us to check what info is online about us private citizens, e.g., when you sign up for items online, our information gets sent out to other companies (unless you read fine print, go to websites, and delete any personal info that you don't want on the net).

  • ohmygosh Jun 23, 2010

    For us in Henderson, it is a necessity to buy things over the internet. There is little choice of anything here. One doesn't save hardly after one includes shipping.

    The problem is poor areas don't have the stores. That's what needs to be fixed by growing the NC economy instead of taxing more.

    Interesting that area businesses support this effort instead of expanding their business via internet sales. They don't get it.

  • Alexia.1 Jun 23, 2010

    They should just get rid of the use tax and this problem goes away. While I know many states have a use tax, it's one that has never affected the common person until now. Now, many of us owe taxes because we bought online or because we bought something in SC before driving into NC. It's really silly. If the state needs the revenue, then perhaps encourage some Internet businesses to set up shop here. Just imagine how much revenue they could earn having those Internet businesses here.