ACLU Jumps Into Case Where North Carolina Wants Detailed Info On Your Amazon Purchases

from the privacy-anyone? dept

Back in March, we wrote about the surprising effort by the North Carolina government to force Amazon to hand over a list of details on every purchase made by anyone in the state. Amazon already provides a ton of information to the government. In fact, I think many would argue it provides too much info:

It routinely provides the Revenue Department with “voluminous information” about its sales to North Carolina addresses as part of routine audits of the company’s compliance with sales and use tax laws. The information includes the date and total price of each transaction, the city, county and ZIP code to which each item was shipped and Amazon’s standard product code for each item, which allows officials to see the description of every product purchased.

Already that seems like a privacy violation. However, to state officials, that’s not enough info. They want actual names and addresses of who bought what and have threatened Amazon if it does not comply. The ACLU has now stepped in to defend Amazon, noting that North Carolina’s demands from Amazon are unconstitutional violations of users free speech, anonymity and privacy rights. Specifically, the ACLU has filed a case against the state on behalf of six anonymous North Carolina residents who don’t believe the government should have a right to look at what they purchased:

  • 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.

It’s really amazing that North Carolina has not backed down on this yet, but I guess that a bunch of states these days have decided that tax revenue (what this case is really about) is more important than citizens’ rights.

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Companies: aclu, amazon

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Comments on “ACLU Jumps Into Case Where North Carolina Wants Detailed Info On Your Amazon Purchases”

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The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Plan B

Gah. Enter Key, you win again!

Anyway, if the lawsuit doesn’t pan out on the side of privacy (and common sense) then Amazon can always elect to stop selling to people with a North Carolina shipping or billing address. That should stir up enough angry citizens to get North Carolina to back down, I imagine.

Clint says:

Re: Re: ACLU

Show me anywhere that the Constitution or Bill of Rights says anything like “separation of church and state.” I’ll help you out…it doesn’t! It just says that the government can’t prohibit people from exercising their religion freely or to establish a national religion (think church of england).

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ACLU

But with application to this instance, it’s pretty clear that precluding a candidate based on refusing to affirm a belief in a God is illegal. The courts have struck down bad candidacy requirements in the past (Williams v. Rhodes for instance), and have been fairly uniform about sticking only to age, good standing in federal law enforcement, and signature requirements.

How can you have a government that does not force religion on to people but then won’t then allow them to serve in government? That doesn’t make any sense….

Drew (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ACLU

Well since you asked…

“Show me anywhere that the Constitution or Bill of Rights says anything like “separation of church and state.” I’ll help you out…it doesn’t! It just says that the government can’t prohibit people from exercising their religion freely or to establish a national religion (think church of england).”

Specifically you are correct, the exact words ‘separation of church and state’ do not exist in the constitution, the exact words that do exist are first in artcile 6 (as mentioned by DH) “… but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Then in the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”.

Now couple these with the fourteenth amendment, which in part states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…” and you have a nice and tight generalized ‘separation of church and state’.

With the above in mind a qualification for public office that requires the elected to affirm the existance or non-existance of god violates the constitution and would easily be struck down if they attempted to enforce such a law.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

It's nice to see that someone still thinks we have a bill of rights

I like seeing lawsuits framed like this. It emphasizes that rights to privacy are sometimes tied to important issues of free speech.

Privacy rights themselves are not guaranteed in the Constitution or Bill of Rights and therefore it is often easy for the courts to ignore them entirely or assume that privacy rights may be subordinate to the needs of business models or government convenience. This case shows that at least in some situations privacy rights DO matter and that wholesale sweeping aside of privacy rights tramples all over the principles of democratic society.

ComputerAddict (profile) says:

“since when did a company, US or foreign, ever stopped a specific market because of a lawsuit?”

Umm.. Amazon already blocked a ton of business’s from referring customers to their site when Colorado, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and New York tried to collect tax dollars from Amazon because of their affiliates.

Amazon is one of the few companies that are probably willing to stand up to state governments at the expense of their customers.

Pangolin (profile) says:

Little known fact

When you purchase something “mail order” and the company doesn’t have a “nexus” (location) in your state, the company doesn’t collect the sales tax THAT YOU OWE. It’s all about taxes as noted in the post. NC wants to send you a bill for the taxes you owe.

Normally a store collects the sales tax for you. You DO OWE IT even if not collected. This is a major flaw in peoples understanding.

If I drive across the border to a state with no sales tax and buy a couch – I owe the “use tax” in my home state. It’s just that the other state doesn’t collect it for me.

If people paid what they owed – and I’m not saying there is an easy mechanism to track this or even to pay it – then this would not be an issue. You don’t have to disclose WHAT you bought – only that you bought something taxable.

Amazon could provide the data – without the actual purchase details – and NC could proceed that way.

As states feel the economic pinch – these loopholes are going to be closed.

As online shopping gains in percent of total sales – tax revenues will decrease as well causing mounting pressure to “tax the internet”.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Little known fact

This is a well known fact. Anyone who has filled out their NC state tax forms has to declare “mail order and out of state” purchases that has not been taxed.

The fact that most people mark that as $0 is a different problem entirely. If NC wants to accuse an individual of tax evasion, they should subpoena specific information on a case-by-case basis. A state should not have the right to demand any retailer provide their entire database of customer information just because the state’s sales taxes are dropping.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Little known fact

Taxes only get paid because the state gets their money up front. Many citizens don’t know who the vice president is, much less understand that they have to pay additional taxes on mail order goods.

If NC wants this sales tax, they should provide Amazon with the staff to collect it for them. That’s the easiest solution.

Spying on citizen’s purchases creates so many more problems than it solves.

Drew (profile) says:

Re: Little known fact

Wow, learn something new everyday. For some reason in my mind ‘use taxes’ seem to violate some part of the constitution, not that I can find anything specific at this time. More so these seem to violate basic common sense; for instance I live in Oregon where there are no Sales taxes and purchase many goods, if I then move to a state that has a ‘sales and use tax’ then wouldn’t I have to pay a ‘use tax’ on all my goods since I would then be a resident of that state?

These States need to be slapped down for their greedy fingers and find better ways to generate revenue.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: Little known fact

Perhaps… just PERHAPS… not everyone agrees with what both you and the gubment seem to think is “owed”. Perhaps many people think that since they are double and triple taxed on so many other things already, that states, including NC, can just go suck it as far as online and mail order purchases are concerned.


Dr.Smith says:

A business point of view

One of the primary drivers is collection of sales tax. We all know that. But on what basis? Sales taxes on sales made by a business in the state to a resident of the state is certainly under the state’s purview to tax. It was a business transaction taking place within the geo-political boundary of the state. Saying the state is “due” this tax because the person should have purchased locally but didn’t isn’t always valid. What if NO vendor in the state carries the article? No business in the state “lost” a sale. The state didn’t “lose” local tax revenue. As stated, what if the item has some “charge” to it – political, social, or even against the “community standards of decency”? There are still areas where certain items are considered so immoral that jail time is required. Exposing even one instance of that forbidden purchase and ruining one life is too high a price to pay to save our over-bloated government agencies.

MD (profile) says:


This information – billing info – isn’t private. The issue is that these digital dossiers create a profile of the person based on their consumer habits. Ths is what people feel is an invasion of privacy but is really profiling based on their digital activity, not physical.

I’m not saying this is right, or wrong. It IS perfectly legal. People expect a degree of anonymity when doing things on the internet. There is no person to person activity, its all through a medium. When people realize that the not-so-private nature of their activities results in a profile of them, that’s when they raise hell. Those Jane Doe claims are all reasonable, but as mentioned, there is nothing illegal about them. By using the internet in such a way, you essentially accept this risk.

Also, do a search for “Total Information Awareness Program” – stuff like this has and likely is being done by the gov’t as we speak.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Actually...

“It IS perfectly legal.”

Legal? I don’t think so. There are several constitutional basis (plural spelling?) for the right to privacy, though the word is not mentioned. The 4th amendment to protect a person’s right to “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches” is to be coupled with the ninth amendment (taking away all of this silly digital distinction nonsense) and glued together with the 14th amendment, requiring a warrant to be issued for the search of personal effects unless there is probable cause.

For practical purposes, having a list of the effects purchased is the same as searching the effects themselves, particularly in the instance of non-unique items.

“Also, do a search for “Total Information Awareness Program” – stuff like this has and likely is being done by the gov’t as we speak.”

Not likely, definitely. Core components of TIAP are still being funded, but no longer under DARPA. Instead, they’ve been funneled off to the NSA and SAIC. They have already used this technology against the USSR in the Cold War, when it was still called the Echelon SIG/INT network. In this instance, they are simply turning it around and pointing it at American citizens….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Actually...

I know what you’re saying, but there is “reasonable expectation of privacy” built into the 4th Amendment.

Case law from Katz establishes that test, along with society’s belief that such an expectation is reasonable. It’s a matter of fact, not law as to whether this sharing of information is reasonable or not.

MD (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Actually...

I agree with you 100% I’m not suggesting its right for Amazon to do this, I’m just pointing out that its legal. I wish I had my books here so that I could point to a couple cases where such an issue was challenged and shot down by the court.

Epectations of privacy have changed dramatically since Olmstead and Katz. Law isn’t up to date with technology and society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Actually...

Oh, agreed that it hasn’t kept up.

At least by including the “expectation” test the court tried to make the doctrine self-correcting. I think if you asked a reasonable person, he’d NOT expect his Amazon order history would automatically be made available.

At least I HOPE that’s the case, but even as I write that I have some doubts. 🙁

Kifflington says:

Taxed at point of sale

I recently bought a product from Amazon that was only available shipped from US to my home in the UK and as such the product was purchased from Amazon’s US site; Amazon added the UK sales tax (VAT) at the point of sale. If they can do that for international sales why not US domestic? That’s a genuine query, by the way, not a snipe – is it just the way sales taxes work in the US?

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Taxed at point of sale

Our sales tax rules are insane.

I build websites for small to medium businesses and I generally advise my clients not to sell items to people out of state via the Internet, because of the crazy laws that each state has, that each other state is supposed to respect. 😛

It’s a tangled mess and I’m not even remotely surprised that Amazon refused to touch it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Taxed at point of sale

Answer to our friend from England asking why Amazon collected VAT for a purchase shipped to him and does not collect sales tax on items shipped to the US.
I think the answer to your questions lies in a Supreme Court ruling a while back that states could not require a business that did not have a physical location in the state to collect sales tax. I believe it involved Quill(office product company) and the state of North Dakota. So in states that Amazon doesn’t have a physical location (warehouse, office) they can not be required to collect sales tax. The tax is still due and the consumer is supposed to pay the state themselves. Although I think this rarely happens. Amazon may be required to collect sales tax or VAT for all products being shipped to England as they have a physical location there or other arrangement.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

If idiots paid their use taxes it wouldnt be asking

If morons would be paying the use taxes that they are legally responsible for then it would not be necessary for the state to fight for the information to prosecute.

Argue all you want, but either Amazon starts collecting sales tax or they provide the information to the state to collect it from the citizens…

Take your pik, but it won’t be both ways

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: If idiots paid their use taxes it wouldnt be asking

How do you know that they’re not paying the use taxes?

I understand that NC suspects that some of its residents aren’t paying their taxes, but the last time I checked, this was America, so all of those citizens are innocent until NC can prove otherwise.

And if NC knows that an individual isn’t paying their taxes, they should subpoena their records, legally, prove their allegations, and then fine them, instead of taking an end-run around out civil rights this way.

Robert A. Rosenberg (profile) says:

Re: If idiots paid their use taxes it wouldnt be asking

“Argue all you want, but either Amazon starts collecting sales tax or they provide the information to the state to collect it from the citizens…”

IMO, the MOST that Amazon should do is email (or mail me) a reminder at the end of the year of how much tax I did not pay and remind me to use this information to claim my “Use Tax”. This report should NOT also be made to my state Tax Department since it is none of their business due to it being, by tax law, my responsibility to track this amount not their responsibility to monitor my out-of-state purchases from companies without an instate presence.

WammerJammer (profile) says:

It's not over

As the State and Federal governments collapse under the weight of their own out-of-control spending, you will see even more taxing and usage fees until we can no longer function. The State Governments in particular are gasping their last breaths as unemployment continues and the corporations continue to destroy our country.
But us hippie types, you know the ones that were reviled by the Reaganites, the Nixonites and the other freaks running the government, we told you so 50 years ago.
But why would you listen to your youth when they are only considered fodder for the war machine. I actually hoped I would die before we could no longer reverse the process. But it has got to the point that only outright civil war and a complete rewriting of the constitution will even begin to save this country.
As to the ecology, this planet’s screwed. We need to find another one immediately. The damage is done and only our complete removal from the planet will save it.
The States are fighting a losing battle and can be relied on to do nothing but harass the citizenry to try to prop up their corrupt government model.

jeff2010 (profile) says:

Corrupt government once again

This is ridiculous as its nothing but a witch hunt… not to mention also being an illegal search and seizure.

Apparently they think they have the right to search everyones home who lives in the state of North Carolina, in an attempt to find something wrong.

They are trying to use an excuse of a “tax audit”… but that is just as stupid because Amazon isn’t required to collect taxes due to Federal law. Which means North Carolina hs no legal right to “audit” Amazon over it.

The ACLU reasoning though is rather ridiculous in itself… as this is more than just “books”… if they are basing their case off of that, they won’t win very much if anything. As all that will happen is Amazon won’t report any book purchases… big deal. That won’t help most citizens defend against this illegal witch hunt.

Kirk (profile) says:


The founders of this country were geniuses! Here we are a couple hundred years later and their contract is still in force.

Government is inheritly opposed to individual freedom, and privacy. Although our rights have been eroded over the years, it is still very imoressive that the ideals have survived this long with Government having unlimited resources to take away rights. They were geniuses!

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