A federal magistrate in Madison, Wisconsin has harshly criticized the FBI for its aggressive efforts to force Amazon.com to reveal the identities of more than 24,000 individuals who purchased used books from Robert D'Angelo, the subject of a tax fraud investigation.
In the summer of 2006, a grand jury investigating the allegations issued a subpoena to the online bookseller, ordering it to produce the requested by government agents. The government hoped to contact individuals who had purchased books from D'Angelo and obtain information that they could use as evidence against him. Amazon refused to provide the identities of specific purchasers to the FBI and moved to quash the subpoena.
"It sounds like, once again, the government's request for information was overbroad," said Lauren Weinstein, an Internet privacy expert and cofounder of the People for Internet Responsibility. "It's unfortunately the case that law enforcement goes into these cases asking for the moon in the hopes that they'll simply get the information."
Serious First Amendment Issue
In a June opinion that was just unsealed on Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Stephen L. Crocker said that the case raises a legitimate First Amendment issue. While acknowledging that neither the FBI nor the grand jury had any particular interest in what Amazon customers were reading, Crocker said that the information request was still troubling.
"It is an unsettling and un-American scenario," he wrote, "to envision federal agents nosing through the reading lists of law-abiding citizens while hunting for evidence against someone else."
Pointing to recent well-publicized reports about the USA Patriot Act and litmus tests for employees at the Department of Justice, Judge Crocker said the public would have legitimate concerns about why the information was requested.
"Rational book buyers would have a non-speculative basis to fear," he said, "that federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents have a secondary political agenda that could come into play when an opportunity presented itself."
Potential Chilling Effect
In the hearing on its motion to quash, Amazon argued that if its bookbuyers learned that their identities had been turned over to the government, there is a significant likelihood that it would discourage some people from using its service.
Judge Crocker agreed. "Well-founded or not, rumors of an Orwellian federal criminal investigation into the reading habits of Amazon's customers," Judge Crocker said, "could frighten countless potential customers into canceling planned online book purchases, now and perhaps forever." He said that he did not question the motives of government agents in this particular case, but felt that Amazon's legitimate concerns outweighed the government's need for the large amount of information requested.
In a compromise arrangement, the judge said that Amazon would send a letter to a small subset of the individuals, asking if they would be willing to contact the FBI voluntarily to discuss the case. The identities of the individuals contacted, the judge said, would not be available to the FBI.
"This type of case," Weinstein said, "highlights the problems that can arise when companies amass enormous amounts of information about large numbers of customers. It can be very vulnerable, and it's important for the courts to keep an eye on what the government is doing."