A privacy lawsuit between the North Carolina Department of Revenue and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was settled on Wednesday, and the state agreed to stop requesting its residents’ personal information through Amazon.com.
Since 2003, the state has asked Amazon for detailed records of what North Carolina customers were purchasing on the site in order to collect sales use taxes, which amounted to about $50 million. Amazon gave this information to the state without including the customers’ personal information such as their name and address, but the North Carolina Department of Revenue started to demand this information as well, which led to the legal battle.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined Amazon in their fight to protect customer information when the online retailer refused to violate the privacy of its customers.
“The N.C. Department of Revenue does not need access to private customer records that reveal which specific customers in North Carolina have ordered which specific books, music or movies in order to complete its audit of Amazon and collect any taxes owed,” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “We are pleased that the public’s First Amendment rights have been upheld by this settlement, which prohibits the department from seeking this kind of information from Amazon or other Internet retailers in the future.”
A representative for the North Carolina Department of Revenue argued that the state was never really interested in its citizens’ buying patterns.
“The case between the North Carolina Department of Revenue and Amazon has long been twisted into something it is not,” said Beth Stevenson, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Revenue. “Bottom line, this is about fairly collecting the tax that is due to the state of North Carolina and nothing more. The Department has always maintained that we do not need – or want – titles or similar details about products purchased by Amazon customers. The department voluntarily destroyed the detailed information that Amazon unnecessarily provided and offered them the opportunity to comply with the state tax laws moving forward.
“The lawsuit on this particular issue could have been avoided altogether if not for the aggressive stance Amazon took to avoid compliance with North Carolina’s tax laws. There would have never been an issue of customer privacy if Amazon would simply collect the North Carolina sales tax that others already do.”
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled last October that the North Carolina Department of Revenue had overstepped its boundaries with its request for personal information, and noted that there is “no legitimate need” for them to have such information.
“The fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights,” said Pechman.
According to Rudinger, Amazon was not part of the settlement, and it was unclear whether Amazon’s lawsuit regarding the state’s audit was pending on appeal.
In addition to Amazon, the North Carolina Department of Revenue is also facing lawsuits from many online travel companies such as Travelocity.com, Travelscape, Hotels.com, Trip Network Inc. and Orbitz due to the state and counties’ tendencies to “arbitrarily change the contracts” they have with hotels in North Carolina.
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