Thanks to a First Amendment-waving judge, US prosecutors have given up their efforts to subpoena the names of thousands of people who've purchased used books on Amazon.com.
Last year, as part of an investigation into the online book selling habits of a city official in Madison, Wisconsin, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records on 24,000 Amazon Marketplace sales between 1999 and 2003, including the names of thousands of buyers.
Prosecutors were dead-set on arranging evidence-gathering interviews with these innocent web mavens, but Amazon refused to reveal individual names, citing the buyers' First Amendment right to privacy. The grand jury thought this was silly, and as it continued to push for at least some of the names, the uber-dot.com asked US Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker for protection.
In June - as recently unsealed court documents (PDF) show - Crocker ruled that the subpoena was indeed an invasion of First Amendment rights, and he set up a compromise whereby Amazon would send letters to the buyers, asking for interview volunteers.
"The subpoena is troubling because it permits the government to peek into the reading habits of specific individuals without their prior knowledge or permission," Crocker wrote. "It 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."
You aren't worried by "un-American scenarios"? The judge also said that the subpoena might destroy the internet as we know it. "If word were to spread over the Net – and it would – that the FBI and the IRS had demanded and received Amazon’s list of customers and their personal purchases," he continued, "the chilling effect on expressive e-commerce would frost keyboards across America."
You have to like this guy's style. "Fiery rhetoric quickly would follow and the nuances of the subpoena (as actually written and served) would be lost as the cyberdebate roiled itself to a furious boil," he rattled on. "One might ask whether this court should concern itself with blogger outrage disproportionate to the government’s actual demand of Amazon.
"The logical answer is yes, it should: well-founded or not, 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 kicker, according to The Associated Press, is that before the letters went out, protectors said they didn't need Amazon's help after all. They'd found the names they needed sitting on the PC of the man they were investigating.
Crocker wasn't too happy. "If the government had been more diligent in looking for workarounds instead of baring its teeth when Amazon balked, it's probable that this entire First Amendment showdown could have been avoided." ®