Local News

Judge: N.C. tax collectors can't have Amazon customer data

Posted October 26, 2010 10:08 a.m. EDT
Updated October 26, 2010 5:48 p.m. EDT

— A federal judge has ruled that Amazon.com doesn't have to turn over customers’ personal information to the North Carolina Department of Revenue.

The online retail giant has been fighting for months with the state, which wants detailed records of what customers have purchased since 2003 so that it can collect an estimated $50 million in sales and use taxes.

Amazon provided the state with details about purchases without identifying which customer bought what, but the state wanted names and addresses linked to the purchases.

In a lawsuit, Amazon argued the request violated customers’ privacy because the state would be able to determine their buying patterns. The American Civil Liberties Union joined Amazon in the fight.

“The ACLU is not taking issue with the (revenue) 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,” Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, said in a statement Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman agreed, ruling Monday that the state’s request went too far and "runs afoul of the First Amendment” and that there was “no legitimate need” for the state to know what customers purchased.

"Citizens are entitled to receive information and ideas through books, films and other expressive materials anonymously," Pechman wrote in her decision. "The fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

State officials have maintained that they were never interested in people's buying patterns, and they said Tuesday that they haven't decided whether to appeal Pechman's ruling.

"This case has been twisted into something it is not. The North Carolina Department of Revenue wants to collect the sales tax that is due to the state and nothing more," Beth Stevenson, spokeswoman for the revenue department, said in a statement.

"The department has not needed – and does not want – titles or similar details about products purchased by Amazon customers. The department has already purged that kind of information from its computer system that Amazon previously sent," Stevenson said.