Federal Court Upholds Amazon Users' Privacy And Free Speech Rights

By: Nicole A. Ozer

Seattle – A federal judge ruled late Monday that government requests for detailed information about Amazon.com customers violate Internet users' rights to free speech, anonymity and privacy. The ruling came in a lawsuit originally brought by Amazon to stop the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR) from collecting personally identifiable information about customers that could be linked to their specific purchases on Amazon. The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and ACLU of Washington intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of several Amazon.com customers whose information was at stake.

Recognizing that government requests for expressive information can have an unconstitutional chilling effect on constitutionally-protected behavior, U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the Western District of Washington at Seattle wrote:

"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."

According to the lawsuit filed by Amazon in April, NCDOR issued a request to Amazon for the purchase records from August 2003 through February 2010 of customers with a North Carolina shipping address as part of a tax audit of Amazon. Amazon provided NCDOR with product codes that reveal the exact items purchased – including books on the subjects of mental health, alcoholism and LGBT issues – but withheld individually identifiable user information that could be linked back to the individual purchases, including names and addresses. NCDOR refused to agree that it is not entitled to such information, leading to the lawsuit.

The following can be attributed to Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project:

"This ruling is a victory for privacy and free speech on the Internet. Disclosing the purchase records of Internet users to the government would violate their constitutional rights to read and purchase the lawful materials of their choice, free from government intrusion, and undermine the very basis of American democracy and our cherished freedoms. With this ruling, the court emphatically reemphasized what other courts have found before – that government entities cannot watch over our shoulders to see what we are buying and reading."

Today's decision is available online at www.aclu.org.

More information about the case, Amazon.com, LLC v. Kenneth R. Lay, is available online at www.aclu.org.