February 2002

13 Feb 2002[link to here]

I sent this to Amazon today:

I've heard that the federal government has been demanding purchasing histories of some customers at Amazon and at other bookstores. This is a gross abuse of power and violation of privacy. I understand that you have limited options under current legislation, but corporations wield far more influence than citizens, and I'm asking you to act to protect your customers.

I'd like to see the same protection for book purchase records as exist for video rentals. This is an important issue to me, and I will only be buying my books with cash from now on until such protections are legislated. While I've been very happy with Amazon in the past and have no qualms about giving you information that helps you improve your business, I don't know how to continue to spend money at your store while still protecting myself from an overly intrusive government.

It's up to you how to fight for the rights of your customers (and for the business of concern consumers like me). I appreciate that you are standing up to direct requests. I recommend also lobbying congress for protective legislation, asking consumers to contact their representatives, and giving legal and financial assistance to other booksellers who are falling under the federal boot heel. Smaller booksellers do pose a small amount of competition to Amazon, but their cases establish legal precedents, and helping them could work for you in the long run, especially since it's you who stand to lose the most if people flock back to non-internet bookstores.

Meanwhile, I'll be doing what I can to inform consumers of the dangers of buying books online until either there are legal protections in place or it becomes clear that Amazon can effectively protect its customers from immoral government behavior.

Amazon is standing up to direct requests, and they do take this seriously, and if I'd bothered to finish reading this Salon article before starting that letter, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But I'm glad I did, because while resistance to direct threats is helpful, they (and others) could be doing more to change the situation. Perhaps more importantly, no amount of resistance makes these types of records as safe as no records at all, and no one should feel unthreatened, no matter how innocuous they might think their reading habits are. Your hobbies are only one scandal away from being labeled as terrorism or sedition.

Amazon replied fairly quickly with a form letter telling me where they post their privacy policy. I wonder if they'll even read my letter.

14 Feb 2002[link to here]

A good interview was published yesterday of David Brin speaking once again about privacy. He argues eloquently against the sort of actions I called for yesterday, calling them ineffective and misguided, and instead calls for greater accountability and oversight of those who can abuse information. I think it's a good point. For example, I don't mind people knowing that I like to read about cryptography and neurochemistry as long as I'm not persecuted for doing so.

I've previously mentioned his essay and book on the topic. I still haven't gotten around to reading the book, but perhaps now I will.