An interesting lawsuit came to light yesterday, as it was disclosed that the federal government was denied in an attempt to obtain customer records from Amazon.com
, citing First Amendment and privacy rights of individuals not to have their reading habits scoured by government officials. This wasn't a situation where the government really was interested in anyone's reading habits. It involved a case against a Madison, Wisconsin official who was accused of selling books via Amazon out of his city office and was accused of tax evasion and fraud. The federal prosecutors wanted access to Amazon's customer info in order to find witnesses who had purchased books from the officials -- but Amazon was worried about the rights to privacy of those individuals, and the judge agreed. It's also worth noting that the feds tried to keep this particular case silent, but the judge unsealed the records, noting: "The subpoena is troubling because it permits the government to peek into the reading habits of specific individuals without their knowledge or permission. It is an unsettling and un-American scenario to envision federal agents nosing through the reading lists of law-abiding citizens while hunting for evidence against somebody else." Following this, the feds dropped their request and claimed they got enough info from looking at the officials computer (after which the judge scolded the feds for not taking that route earlier).
While you can see the feds' position on this one (they didn't care about the content, they were just looking for people who had been customers to build their case), Amazon and the judge were right that this represented a slippery slope concerning what sorts of private info Amazon would be expected to reveal in other cases. News.com has an interesting interview with David Zapolsky, Amazon.com's vice president for litigation
, where he discusses what happened here and how often the company gets these types of requests. Apparently, Amazon gets similar subpoena's "roughly once a quarter," and reviews them carefully to make sure that no privacy rights are violating in handing over any information. Contrast this to how most of the telcos responded to gov't spying requests
, and it shows why it's silly to grant immunity to the telcos. Just because a gov't official demands information, it does not mean that companies should simply roll over and hand over that info. It's nice to see that Amazon recognizes that basic premise, even as the telcos try to weasel out of having to admit they probably broke the law in simply giving in to gov't requests.