The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

ACLU Intervenes In Lawsuit To Protect Amazon Users' Personal Information

Demand For Records By North Carolina Department Of Revenue Unconstitutional


Requests by the North Carolina Department
of Revenue (NCDOR) for detailed information about customers
are unconstitutional because they violate Internet users' rights to free
speech, anonymity and privacy, according to a complaint filed today by
the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina Legal
Foundation and ACLU of Washington. The ACLU, on behalf of several customers, intervened in an existing lawsuit brought by
Amazon to stop NCDOR from collecting personally identifiable information
that could be linked to their specific purchases on Amazon.

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

The ACLU filed the case on behalf of six anonymous North Carolina
residents (Does 1-6) and Cecil Bothwell, an elected public official, who
do not think the government should be able to find out the personal,
private information their purchasing records reveal. The plaintiffs

  • Jane Doe 1, who purchased books on self-help and how to get a
    divorce and a restraining order after her former spouse developed
    substance abuse problems and threatened to kill her;
  • Jane Doe 2, the general counsel of a global corporation, who has
    purchased books and movies with overt political leanings as well as
    books that may reveal her religious beliefs;
  • Jane Doe 3, who has purchased books on mental health in order to
    better understand the conditions afflicting her former spouse,
    including "Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone
    Your Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder," as well as books
    about cancer, including "Cancer: 50 Essential Things To Do: Revised and
    Updated," by Greg Anderson. She has also purchased books on atheism. She
    is not public about her personal beliefs and doesn't want others to
    find out;
  • Jane Doe 4, who has received several politically-charged items
    through Amazon from her parents, including "Obama Zombies: How The
    Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation," by Jason Mattera. Jane Doe 4
    is a law school student who would like to one day work in the public
    sector, and she is concerned that her career prospects may be impaired
    if her personal and political beliefs are disclosed;
  • Jane Doe 5, the parent of Jane Doe 4, who is a Florida resident,
    but whose information has been caught up in NCDOR's request. She does
    not want the government to know which books she has decided to purchase
    for her child;
  • Jane Doe 6, whose purchases include books with sensitive and
    potentially controversial subject matters; and
  • Cecil Bothwell, an elected city official, author and proprietor
    of a publishing house who has both purchased and sold potentially
    controversial books on Amazon. He is an atheist, which his political
    opponents seized on following his election because of a provision in the
    North Carolina Constitution that purports to prohibit anyone who "shall
    deny the being of Almighty God" from holding public office. He is
    joining the lawsuit on behalf of himself and his readers and customers,
    whose information has also been sought by NCDOR.

According to the lawsuit filed by Amazon in April in the U.S. District
Court for the Western District of Washington, NCDOR issued a request to
Amazon for the purchase records since August 2003 of customers with a
North Carolina shipping address as part of a tax audit of Amazon. Amazon
has already provided NCDOR with product codes that reveal the exact
items purchased - including books on the subjects of mental health,
alcoholism and LGBT issues. Amazon has withheld individually
identifiable user information that could be linked back to the
individual purchases, including names and addresses, but NCDOR has
refused to agree that it is not entitled to such information.

"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,"
said Katy Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal
Foundation. "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 consumer's rights."

The ACLU in May sent a letter to North Carolina Secretary of Revenue
Kenneth Lay, informing him that the ACLU would take legal action if
NCDOR persisted in its demand for constitutionally-protected

In addition to Fine and Parker, attorneys on the case are Mariko Hirose
of the ACLU, Sarah Dunne of the ACLU of Washington and cooperating
attorney Venkat Balasubramani of the Focal PLLC law firm.

The ACLU's complaint can be found online at:

LLC v. Kenneth R. Lay - Intervenors' Complaint

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation's guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

(212) 549-2666