Local Politics

ACLU joins Amazon in privacy fight against N.C.

Posted June 23, 2010 1:00 p.m. EDT
Updated June 23, 2010 2:13 p.m. EDT

— 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.