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Book Snoops Suffer Reversal

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Feds Cancel Amazon Customer ID Request

reads the headline over an AP story quoted at

The story goes on to say, in part:

Federal prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Inc, newly unsealed court records show. The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a First Amendment right to keep their reading habits from the government.

"The (subpoena's) chilling effect on expressive e-commerce would frost keyboards across America," U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker wrote in a June ruling.

"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," the judge wrote in a ruling he unsealed last week.

"The subpoena is troubling because it permits the government to peek into the reading habits of specific individuals without their 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."

Federal prosecutors issued the subpoena last year as part of a grand jury investigation into a former Madison official who was a prolific seller of used books on They were looking for buyers who could be witnesses in the case.

Judge Crocker's point seems to be, although he has slightly veiled it, that, while superficially this was merely a request related to a specific criminal investigation, there was every reason to suspect that it was, rather, an attempt to establish precedent: had he granted the subpoena then, further down the road, the feds could use the decision as justification for demanding on mere whim or for sinister purposes the purchase records of private individuals -- and hence the ability to snoop into those individuals' reading habits. (Do I hear a distant, sarcastic voice saying "PATRIOT Act?")

I used to think that I didn't give a damn about other people knowing all about my reading habits -- okay, sure, so I read all sorts of crap from time to time, and I'm sure my peers would laugh themselves all the way to an urgent laundry requirement if they learned about some of it, but in essence I have nothing to hide.

More recently, though, I've realized the logical gap in that attitude -- the gaping, ginormous, cavernous black hole of a logical flaw. I'd been assuming that the hypothetical snooper into my reading records would be rational. But there've been so many examples over recent years of federal goons displaying profound irrationality in misguided quests to ensure "homeland security" (and I'm being charitable describing all of these as merely misguided), goons who've lost sight of any distinction between prosecution and persecution, that now I'm a bit more protective of my privacy.

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For example, I've recently read and enjoyed (and keep intending to review) Diane Setterfield's very pleasing novel The Thirteenth Tale. Can I run the risk of some acne-ridden Maxwell Smart somewhere going into orgasmic fits of speculation about the fact that the title's third word forms the first four letters, in some spellings, of . . .?

How far could such nonsense go? If I read Demos by one of my favourite 19th-century authors, George Gissing, would there be worries in the Secret Surveillance World that the title was so eerily suggestive of that subversive concept . . . democracy?

A silly suggestion. Yes, of course. I think.

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JOHN GRANT is the author of about 70 books. His The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, currently in its third edition, is regarded as the standard work in its field. As co-editor with John Clute of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy he (more...)

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