October 26, 2010, 6:39 PM

Amazon wins one in court

Amazon does not have to disclose customers’ personal data to North Carolina tax officials.

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Judge Marsha J. Pechman ruled in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Monday that Amazon.com Inc. does not have to turn over more information than it has already provided to the North Carolina Department of Revenue for the purposes of identifying sales tax due the state on sales to North Carolina residents.

“The First Amendment protects a buyer from having the expressive content of her purchase of books, music, and audiovisual materials disclosed to the government,” Pechman wrote in her decision, a copy of which was obtained by Internet Retailer. “Citizens are entitled to receive information and ideas through books, films, and other expressive material anonymously.”

Pechman also denied motions by the North Carolina Department of Revenue to dismiss the case, which Amazon filed against the department earlier this year.

Pechman noted in her ruling that Amazon provided North Carolina with data including order I.D. numbers, ship-to address, and Amazon’s own identification numbers that it ties to each purchase and which can be used to describe purchased products. But Amazon did not include the name, address, phone number, e-mail address or other personally identifiable information of any customer, the ruling also noted.

But when North Carolina asked Amazon to provide the names and addresses of buyers and recipients tied to Amazon’s orders, the retailer responded by filing its complaint in court to block the state's move.

Pechman also noted, however, that her ruling does not prohibit North Carolina from issuing a new request for the names and addresses of Amazon’s customers along with general product information. But she clarified that the state could only seek that information if it stayed within those customers’ First Amendment rights and first destroyed any detailed information that it already possesses on Amazon’s sales transactions.

In a statement, the North Carolina Department of Revenue expressed disappointment with Pechman’s ruling, and said it was reviewing her decision to determine whether it would file an appeal. “This case has been twisted into something it is not,” the revenue department said. “The North Carolina Department of Revenue wants to collect the sales tax that is due to the state and nothing more. The judge [on Oct. 25] acknowledged our need to collect those taxes and to gather the basic information necessary to do so.

“The department has not needed—and does not want—titles or similar details about products purchased by Amazon customers. The department has already purged that kind of information from its computer system that Amazon previously sent. The judge’s decision is under review and a determination has not yet been made as to whether an appeal is necessary.”

Amazon did not immediately return a call for comment.

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