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Amazon Can Keep Buyer|Data Private, Judge Rules

(CN) - Amazon.com is not required to hand over detailed information about its customers to the North Carolina Department of Revenue, a federal judge in Seattle ruled Monday. "[T]he First Amendment protects the disclosure of individual's reading, listening, and viewing habits," U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman wrote.

Pechman granted Amazon's request for a declaration that the state department's records request was invalid, because it violated online shoppers' First Amendment rights.

"The First Amendment protects a buyer from having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music, and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government," Pechman wrote. "The fear of government tracking and censoring one's reading, listening, and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights."

The ruling stems from North Carolina's long-running effort to collect taxes on Amazon purchases by North Carolina residents.

As part of its investigation of Amazon's tax liability, the state Department of Revenue sent Amazon a request last December for "all information for all sales to customers with a North Carolina shipping address" from Aug. 1, 2003 to Feb. 28, 2010.

The Seattle-based online retailer provided detailed information about millions of purchases by North Carolina residents, including order numbers, sellers, sales amounts, tax audit records and product ID numbers, which allow the state to identify each item purchased.

But Amazon refused to provide buyers' names, addresses or other personal information, citing customers' privacy rights.

The department kept pressing for buyer information, however, saying it needed the information to determine Amazon and its customers' tax liability to the state. It even offered to return some of the detailed shipment data in exchange for the names and addresses of the buyers.

Amazon sued the department in Federal Court, claiming the requests violated the Washington State Constitution and the federal Video Privacy Protection Act.

Amazon customers in North Carolina intervened, seeking broad declarations that the state's records requests "violates the free speech and privacy rights" of buyers, that the department's practice of requesting constitutionally protected information is unconstitutional, and that the state's demands violate federal law.

They also sought three injunctions: one barring the Department of Revenue from demanding personally identifiable information from Amazon and requiring the state to destroy or return any records already provided; a second barring the state from issuing similar records requests in the future, and a third permanently prohibiting the state from disclosing the information without customers' written consent, a warrant, a court order or a grand-jury subpoena.

Ruling for Amazon on its First Amendment claim, Judge Pechman explained that the government is not entitled to track people's buying habits.

Consumers argued that they would stop buying through Amazon if the company revealed their identities and what they bought.

"The DOR [Department of Revenue] concedes that the First Amendment protects them from such disclosures," Pechman wrote. "In fact, the DOR has repeatedly stated it does not want detailed information about purchases for fear of implicating the First Amendment. However, DOR has consistently requested this very information by reaffirming its broad requests."

She deemed the department's request for personal buyer information invalid so long as the agency still possesses detailed records allowing it to identify which items were purchased. She also denied the state's two motions to dismiss.

"This ruling is a victory for privacy and free speech on the Internet," said Aden Fine, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the intervening consumers. "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're buying and reading."

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