The American Civil Liberties Union contends that North Carolina's efforts to collect sales taxes from online retailers could lead to government snooping on consumers' online shopping habits.
In court papers filed Wednesday, the nonprofit advocacy group argued that the N.C. Department of Revenue's audit of Amazon.com seeks private customer information the government doesn't need and should not have. The audit is part of the agency's attempt to collect a 7.75 percent sales tax by gathering customer information from at least 350 online retailers, including Amazon.com, that sell to North Carolina residents, who don't pay sales taxes on their purchases.
The ACLU filed its objections on behalf of Asheville Councilman Cecil Bothwell and six anonymous plaintiffs, including four from the Triangle. One is a Raleigh engineer who bought books about restraining orders after receiving death threats from a former spouse. Others bought books on atheism and other controversial subjects.
Jennifer Rudinger, president of the ACLU's North Carolina branch, contended that the Department of Revenue can assess taxes based on retail sales without knowing what customers bought. That's how the collection of sales and use taxes works in brick-and-mortar stores.
"If a store is here, they'd collect the tax," Rudinger said. "The Department of Revenue wouldn't even know who the customer is."
The ACLU, a public interest group, raised the privacy issue in Amazon.com's federal lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Revenue, which was filed in Seattle. The retailer is challenging the state's attempt to force the company to turn over customer information.
Amazon has already provided the state with product descriptions but is balking at revealing customers' names.
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