Amazon Goes to Court to Protect Customer's Privacy

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On April 10, in U.S. District Court of South Carolina's Charleston Division, Amazon argued to block a government's subpoena to turn over the purchase records of a Charleston real estate broker who the U.S. government alleged received child pornography. Ultimately, the government's effort to access the customer's book purchase records from Amazon officially ended after a plea arrangement was worked out between the defendant and authorities.

Nonetheless, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression President Chris Finan told BTW that he was pleased to see attempt to protect the privacy of their customer. "We supported Amazon's position in the case, and felt it was important to fight for the privacy of these records," said Finan. "If the case had gone forward, we would have considered filing an amicus brief as we did when Borders was fighting a subpoena in 2000."

After seizing defendant Calvert Huffines' computer on the suspicion that he visited and viewed Web sites that displayed child pornography, authorities found data suggesting that he was an Amazon customer. On January 15, 2003, the government subpoenaed Amazon and ordered the online bookseller to turn over detailed records of all purchases made by Huffines, including items purchased, description, method of payment, and shipping address.

Amazon responded that, while willing to cooperate with the government, it was concerned that the subpoena implicated privacy and First Amendment interests, and asked authorities to provide additional information to prove compelling need for the records. The government did not, at which point Amazon moved to quash the subpoena.

In its "Memorandum of Law in Opposition to the United States' Motion to Compel and in Support of Motion of to Quash Third Party Subpoena," Amazon wrote:

"Bookstores, whether located on Main Street or on the World Wide Web, provide a constitutionally protected forum by which ideas are exchanged, affording book purchasers the opportunity to browse and buy books on any topic imaginable. While the First Amendment does not shield child pornography, the subpoena in this case is not directed to such unlawful material; rather, by the government's own admission, it is directed to lawful, fully protected First Amendment expressive works. While the government is not directly seizing books, it is doing perhaps an even more chilling exercise: scrutinizing private reading lists and passing judgment, on penalty of jail, not only on the content of the books but the character of those who read them."

On April 10 in District Court, a federal judge dismissed Amazon's argument and ordered Amazon to turn the records over. However, in a separate hearing -- in which the lawyer for the defendant successfully argued for motion to suppress the government's evidence -- U.S. District Judge David Norton put a hold on the magistrate's ruling, as reported by the Charleston Post and Courier. --David Grogan