The American Booksellers Association and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) are urging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to veto a bill that discriminates against independent bookstores that mistakenly disclose customer information to the police and other third parties. In a letter sent last week, ABA CEO Oren Teicher and NAIBA Executive Director Eileen Dengler expressed support for legislation that protects the privacy of bookstore records but opposed Assembly Bill 1396, which authorizes customers to file civil suits against any bookstore that discloses customer information in the absence of a court order. A court can impose a fine of up to $1,000.
In their letter, Teicher and Dengler said that small stores are very aware of the importance of protecting reader records and noted that independent bookstores vigorously fought on behalf of customers’ privacy rights in several high profile cases, including Special Counsel Kenneth Starr’s subpoena of Monica Lewinsky’s records from Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington, D.C., and the search warrant issued to Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver for the records of a suspected methamphetamine dealer. In addition, booksellers have been active for several years in the fight to restore the protections for reader privacy that were eliminated by the USA Patriot Act.
“Independent booksellers are committed to protecting reader privacy, but legislation should recognize the operational challenges facing small businesses, especially when it comes to the matter of paying fines,” said Teicher. “Bricks-and-mortar stores depend heavily on young and sometimes inexperienced staff members who may make mistakes. They should not be punished in the same way as large Internet companies that can direct all inquiries to in-house lawyers who have experience with these requests.”
Teicher and Dengler’s letter stressed that “reader privacy is a core belief of independent booksellers, [and] they have made a concerted effort to educate bookstore staff about the importance of protecting privacy. For more than a decade, ABA and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) have urged booksellers to adopt privacy statements pledging their commitment not to turn over customer records except in compliance with a subpoena. ABFFE has published and widely distributed a pamphlet, ‘Protecting Customer Privacy in Bookstores,’ as well as an emergency contact card that bookstore staff can use to contact ABFFE on a toll-free hotline when they receive a request for customer records. The importance of customer privacy has been stressed during educational programs that ABA, ABFFE, and NAIBA have presented at dozens of bookseller trade shows.
“It is from this perspective that we urge you to veto A.B. 1396 because it is flawed in its approach and unfair to the very bookstore owners and staff who have led the fight to protect the confidentiality of reader records.”
New Jersey A.B. 1396 was approved by the legislature on September 22, and Christie has 45 days to act on the bill.
Booksellers can express their opposition to the bill by writing to Governor Christie at the Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 001, Trenton, NJ 08625. They can also copy Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno at the same address. Guadagno has been charged by the governor with responsibility for protecting small businesses. A template letter that booksellers can adapt is provided below.
Honorable Chris Christie
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 001
Trenton, NJ 08625
Re: Assembly Bill 1396
Dear Governor Christie,
I am writing to urge you to veto Assembly Bill 1396, which treats small businesses unfairly. I own an independent bookstore in [city]. While I believe strongly in protecting the privacy of my customers, A.B. 1396 ignores the important differences between my store and Internet giants like Google and Amazon.com that are the real target of this legislation.
The main argument for A.B. 1396 is that the growing popularity of digital books has created a need for increased privacy protections. Google and Amazon know far more about their customers than I do: which books are browsed, how long each page is viewed and what digital notes appear in the margin. To protect these records as well as the records of books purchased in my store, A.B. 1396 bars the disclosure of customer information except in compliance with a court order. Companies that violate the law can be sued by the customer whose records have been disclosed and fined up to $1,000.
While these regulations and potential penalties are entirely appropriate for Internet companies given their business operations and structure, they unfairly penalize small businesses like mine. When a large online bookseller receives a request for customer information, it is automatically forwarded to the legal department where it is handled by an attorney who understands the law.
This is not the case when a police officer wants to obtain information from a bricks-and-mortar store. We depend heavily on a young and sometimes inexperienced staff that usually includes a large number of part-timers. These are people who the police approach first. Most will refer the request to the store owner, who will know to ask for a subpoena. But others will forget their training out of a desire to be helpful. Some will fear arrest if they are not cooperative. Mistakes are bound to happen in bricks-and-mortar stores that could not occur in an Internet company.
The sponsors of A.B. 1396 fail to appreciate that a $1,000 fine would seriously damage a small bookstore. In addition, a lawsuit would cost me customers by raising doubts about my commitment to protecting privacy. My only recourse would be to go to court in an effort to prove that I was tricked or browbeaten into violating the law. However, this involves even more expense and bad publicity.
Please recognize the difference between independent bookstores and large Internet companies. Veto A.B. 1396.