Amazon.com has filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Revenue, seeking to block the state’s demand for the “name and address of virtually every North Carolina resident who has purchased anything from Amazon since 2003, along with records of what each customer purchased and how much they paid.”
The online retail giant says disclosure of the data would “invade the privacy and violate the First Amendment rights of Amazon and its customers on a massive scale.”
The North Carolina Department of Revenue says it’s still studying the Amazon complaint.
“We learned of the lawsuit just late yesterday afternoon. The North Carolina Department of Revenue received the official legal documentation this morning,” said agency spokeswoman Beth Stevenson. “We are currently reviewing that information and looking into what the complaint actually involves. It would be premature for us to comment on any specifics until we have proper time to review the documents.”
The lawsuit appears to be part of a broader struggle between Amazon and North Carolina over sales tax collection. North Carolina sought unsuccessfully to get Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) to collect sales tax on Web purchases in the state. Now the state is auditing Amazon’s compliance with state sales and use tax laws.
Here’s a copy of the Amazon lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle (pdf, 14 pages).
According to Amazon’s complaint, North Carolina in December requested information on sales to customers in the state between Aug. 1, 2003, and Feb. 28, 2010, as part of the audit process. The company said it provided North Carolina with data to meet that request, including product codes for each item purchased. But Amazon said it did not hand over the “name, address, phone number, e-mail address or other personally identifiable information of any customer.”
Amazon said it had “fully cooperated” with North Carolina, adding:
“But the DOR has no business seeking to uncover the identity of Amazon’s customers who purchased expressive content, which makes up the majority of the nearly 50 million products sold to North Carolina residents during the audit period, let alone associating customers’ names and addresses with the specific books, music, and video content that they have purchased during the past seven years.”
Amazon objects to disclosing “sensitive, personal, controversial or unpopular content” ordered by North Carolina customers, including such works as “Lolita,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and rapper Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP.”
Amazon says North Carolina revenue agents visited its Seattle offices in mid-March.
North Carolina last year was one of several states that sought to force Amazon to collect sales tax based on its use of affiliate Web sites. The idea was that these affiliates, which link to Amazon products, give Amazon a physical “nexus” in the state that requires the company to collect sales tax just like a brick-and-mortar retailer. Amazon, in response, closed its affiliate program in North Carolina, ending the basis for any sales tax collection.
“The best-case scenario for customers would be where the North Carolina Department of Revenue withdraws their demand because they recognize that it violates the privacy rights of North Carolina residents,” said company spokeswoman Mary Osako.