U.S. Government Sought Customer Book Purchasing Records from Amazon.com

Posted: June 12th, 2008 by Militant Libertarian

by David Gutierrez

(NaturalNews) Recently unsealed court records shed more light on the federal government’s attempts to secure the online book purchase records of 24,000 Amazon.com customers.

In 2006, federal prosecutors investigating Robert D’Angelo, a Madison, WI official accused of fraud and tax evasion, subpoenaed online book retailer Amazon.com for transaction records on anyone who had purchased books from him through Amazon Marketplace since 1999. Prosecutors said they were hoping to find witnesses to testify against D’Angelo.

Amazon agreed to tell prosecutors what books D’Angelo had sold, but refused to turn over information on the buyers, citing its customers’ First Amendment rights to privacy. The government came back with a request for only 120 customers, but Amazon still refused. The case went before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker, who ruled in June to strike down the subpoena on First Amendment grounds.

“The subpoena is troubling because it permits the government to peek into the reading habits of specific individuals without their knowledge or permission,” Crocker wrote in his ruling. “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.”

Crocker also expressed concerns that allowing the government to pry into people’s reading habits could function as intimidation, thereby depriving them of their right to read what they wish.

“The chilling effect on expressive e-commerce would frost keyboards across America,” he wrote.

Under Crocker’s urging, prosecutors reached a compromise with Amazon in which the company would send letters to the 24,000 customers sought in the initial subpoena, inviting them to contact prosecutors if they wished to testify.

Crocker also criticized prosecutors for seeking to force Amazon’s hand rather than seeking a compromise on their own.

“If the government had been more diligent in looking for workarounds instead of baring its teeth when Amazon balked, it’s probable that this entire First Amendment showdown could have been avoided,” he said.

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