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Amazon sues the state of North Carolina on privacy issues

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April 21, 2010

Late yesterday, Amazon filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina demanding it to turn over not only the sales records of nearly 50 million transactions since 2003, but also the full names and mailing addresses of the purchasers, along with details of exactly what they bought and when.

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For its part, the North Carolina Department of Revenue (DOR) is itself investigating for some compliance issues with the state's sales tax law.

However, Amazon says that "all of what the DOR needs to know at this time is what items Amazon sold to North Carolina customers and what they paid, and Amazon has already provided that information to the DOR," the Court filing reads.

However, NC's DOR wants more, a lot more: it wants to know exactly what books and videos individual North Carolinians bought and when. And Amazon totally disagrees: "If Amazon is forced to comply with this demand, the disclosure will invade the privacy and violate the First Amendment rights of Amazon and its customers on a gigantic scale."

Additionally, Amazon notes in its filing that: "The state's DOR's actions threaten to chill the exercise of customers' expressive choices and to cause Amazon customers not to purchase certain books, music, movies or other expressive material from Amazon that they might otherwise purchase if they did not fear disclosure of those choices to the government."

Which is simply a legal term for: "It's none of your business, North Carolina."

And it's not merely John Doe either that Amazon is concerned about. As the filing states: "This privacy issue is even greater for public figures who have purchased items from Amazon, because their purchase histories may generate significant political or press interest or otherwise be made public."

Sales records are one thing, says Amazon. "But the DOR has no business seeking to uncover the identity of Amazon's customers who purchased expressive content, which makes up the majority of the nearly 50 million products sold to North Carolina residents during the audit period, let alone associating customers' names and addresses with the specific books, music and video content that they have purchased since 2003."

Privacy is privacy, whether you're merely an average person who doesn't want your purchase of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion known to your Bible-thumping neighbors or not.

Amazon's actions greatly underscores the absolute mess that is privacy law in the U.S. when it comes to online data.

Even rivals such as Microsoft and Google have joined together with the Digital Due Process coalition to bring the almost 25-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) up to digital-age standards.

And you should expect even more court actions and litigation similar to this one and endless legislative deliberations before firm guidelines appear that cover what the U.S. government and various states can request and what should remain beyond its reach.

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Source: The State of North Carolina.

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