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Amazon Wins Battle Against Feds to Protect Customer Privacy Data

U.S. federal prosecutors tried to force Amazon to reveal their customers’ information, but Amazon cited First Amendment protection and refused the request. After a judge rebuked the feds, the FBI abandoned the idea.

Digital Journal — Amazon.com customers, you can now relax. Federal prosecutors no longer want to find out purchasing habits of select Amazon users, setting a precedent with repercussions for all e-commerce sites.

However, the feds only threw away the request after U.S. District Judge Stephen Crocker rejected the Justice Department’s subpoena for details on Amazon’s users.

The Department’s Amazon subpoena came after its investigation into a used book dealer who sold products on Amazon, and is now facing tax evasion charges.

The FBI had at first wanted details of 24,000 people who had bought books from the suspect, but this was later narrowed to 120. Still, Amazon was adamant that customer privacy was paramount, and they battled the Justice Department’s subpoena right from the beginning.

Luckily for them and Amazon customers, Judge Crocker agreed that the U.S. federal subpoena was unwarranted. He wrote in June (in documents just recently available to the public in PDF format): “The subpoena is troubling because it permits the government to peek into the reading habits of specific individuals without their prior knowledge or permission.”

Judge Crocker also went on to say that in the Amazon case, he predicted “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, now and perhaps forever.”

The judge said the subpoena could split the difference: Amazon can send letters to its customers, asking them whether they voluntarily want to contact the Justice Department regarding the investigation.

But after losing the subpoena battle, Daniel Graber, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Madison, rescinded his order for the customer records.

This online privacy controversy was sparked by an October 2006 indictment of Madison city official Robert D’Angelo, who is charged with tax evasion, wire fraud and money laundering. D’Angelo was being investigated in connection with a large mail-order business where he sold CDs, jewelry and — through Amazon — used books.

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