Amazon wins battle to protect customer records

But victory narrowed, since prosecutor obtained data through other means

Vaudreuil said although Amazon had already provided the government with e-mail addresses of its customers, his office did not use it. Instead, investigators were able to obtain the contact information for D'Angelo's customers from a computer they seized from him. The government then contacted the customers about their purchases from D'Angelo, he said.

Zapolsky added that when Amazon read the press release from the U.S. Attorney's office in October saying that D'Angelo had been indicted on fraud, tax evasion and money-laundering charges, it again asked the judge to unseal the documents.

The government, however, still wanted the proceedings to remain sealed. The U.S. Attorney's office argued that Amazon had not established that there was a need, in order to avoid a possible injustice, to unseal the documents.

"Amazon's need for disclosure is simple; it wants to use this court's orders as judicial precedent for future First Amendment challenges Amazon may mount in other cases," according to the U.S. Attorney's response to Amazon's request to unseal the documents. In addition, the government said the indictment did not indicate that D'Angelo's customers used Amazon.com to purchase used books and CDs from him.

"Thus, there is no need for Amazon to publicly defend itself prior to trial regarding disclosures it may have made to the government pursuant to a grand jury subpoena," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in its response.

Finally, the government said, "The effect on future grand juries clearly outweighs Amazon's need for future use of the unsealed pleadings. Amazon's desire to publicize its efforts to protect its customers' First Amendment rights pales in comparison to the public policy reasons that exist in preserving the secrecy afforded grand jury proceedings."

Despite the government's protests, the judge on Nov. 15, noting the suspect had been indicted, ordered the documents unsealed.

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