Recently unsealed court records show that a federal prosecutor tried to subpoena records of 24,000 consumers' book purchases through Amazon, but the retailer stood up to the feds and a magistrate judge backed them up. Those individuals weren't the targets of the investigation; the prosecutor was instead seeking evidence against the seller, a former Madison, Wisconsin official named Robert D'Angelo who was accused of tax fraud for, among other things, running a used-book business out of his office without reporting the income. The prosecution wanted to subpoena the identities of people who bought books from D'Angelo to see if any would testify against him. The court documents had been sealed during the investigation, but Amazon recently convinced the judge to make them public.
Amazon refused to turn over that information in order to protect its customers' First Amendment rights. The First Amendment's protection of the freedom of expression necessarily includes some protections for anonymity both in creating speech and in consuming it; otherwise people would be afraid to engage in some sensitive or embarrassing communications. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker agreed, declaring that the subpoena's “chilling effect on expressive e-commerce would frost keyboards across America.” Although the prosecution wanted the sales records for a legitimate law enforcement goal, he ruled, “[i]t 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.” Hear, hear.