Amazon to N.C. revenuers: Don’t ask, won’t tell

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 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 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


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3 thoughts on “Amazon to N.C. revenuers: Don’t ask, won’t tell

  1. Tired of NC Taxing and Spying

    Tax and spend should be the State Motto not “Esse Quam Videri” This state uses Highway Patrolmen and municipal police as tax collectors.Too bad the money for the tickets doesn’t go toward police salaries but into the hands of the bureaucrats Not to mention the property tax increases of over 40% in the last evaluations. Drive to downtown Jacksonville and see how city gov has run off the small businesses in order to build monolithic government buildings with our tax dollars. Then go to Benson,NC and see a downtown with small businesses. The state and local gov ought to have to operate out of mobile homes or the same trailers they pack our children into for overcrowded schools. Thanks ACLU. Now if we could only find a group of bright young lawyers to start suing the local, state, and federal agencies for overtaxing our citizens.

  2. Dionysis

    It’s nice to see the ACLU get some recognition for a change. They only have one client: the U.S. Constitution. If this was the local daily fishwrapper instead of the MtXpress, there would be a litany of rants decrying the intervention by a commie front group.

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