A U.S. District Court ruling on Internet privacy involving the North Carolina Department of Revenue has upheld the public’s right to anonymity in making Internet purchases of “expressive materials” such as books and films.
The case came about when, as part of a tax audit, NCDOR requested personally identifiable information from Amazon.com for customers with a North Carolina shipping address. Instead, Amazon provided product codes for the items but “withheld individually identifiable user information that could be linked back to the individual purchases, including names and addresses,” according to a press release today from the American Civil Liberties Union of N.C.
The release noted that NCDOR refused Amazon’s privacy claim, and the online retail giant filed a lawsuit in April claiming NCDOR’s request violated Internet users’ rights to free speech, anonymity and privacy. The ACLU nationally, the ACLU of NC Legal Foundation, and the ACLU of Washington all intervened in June on behalf of the Amazon.com customers.
Locally, Asheville City Council Member Cecil Bothwell provided his own declaration for the intervenors, describing the potentially chilling effect NCDOR’s request could have on his private book-publishing business, Brave Ulysses Books, and calling Amazon a “critical outlet” for small publishers. The vast majority of Brave Ulysses’ books, he said, are associated with “particular political, social, cultural, or religious beliefs.” Disclosure of these books could cause readers and customers “adverse consequences, including retaliation,” Bothwell charged. Contacted after the court ruling, Bothwell responsed by e-mail that he was “gratified to be part of a successful effort to protect citizen privacy. The idea that the government should be allowed to track the reading material we purchase seems Orwellian.”
U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the Western District of Washington at Seattle ruled for the customers late on Monday, writing in her decision: “The First Amendment protects a buyer from having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music, and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government. Citizens are entitled to receive information and ideas through books, films, and other expressive materials anonymously. … The fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening, and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU of N.C. Legal Foundation, noted that the organization was “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.”
— Nelda Holder