Feds Sought Identities of Book Buyers; Amazon Resists

Recalling the (in)famous DOJ v Google matter, where Google resisted attempts by government to obtain thousands of user search queries, we learn today that federal prosecutors had sought the identities of thousands of people who bought used books from Amazon, but the online bookseller resisted, with the court ruling in their favor. From the AP story:

Federal prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Amazon.com Inc., newly unsealed court records show.

The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a First Amendment right to keep their reading habits from the government.

“The (subpoena’s) chilling effect on expressive e-commerce would frost keyboards across America,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker wrote in a June ruling.

“Well-founded or not, rumors of an Orwellian federal criminal investigation into the reading habits of Amazon’s customers could frighten countless potential customers into canceling planned online book purchases,” the judge wrote in a ruling he unsealed last week.

…Crocker…said he believed prosecutors were seeking the information for a legitimate purpose. But he said First Amendment concerns were justified and outweighed the subpoena’s law enforcement purpose.

“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. “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.”

The government later found the customer data they needed for their case by examining the defendants own computer system seized by the authorities. So, instead of just doing some legwork of their own to find the data, the government saw it easier to just ask Amazon to turn over customer records, and potentially set a dangerous precedent in the process. Unbelievable.

A few months ago I started musing about the key differences in privacy perspectives/practices between common access points to (book) knowledge: libraries, bookstores, and Google Book Search. Its nice to see Amazon acting like a library in this case: protecting patrons right to access knowledge anonymously and without undue oversight by government.

I give Amazon further credit for pushing to have the court documents unsealed to make this federal subpoena public. Good PR for them, and a reminder to us all of the importance of ensuring free and unfettered access to knowledge.

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