Qwest under fire for opt-out information sharing

Telecommunication giant Qwest Communications International Inc. continued to come under fire over the last week for its policy on sharing customer data and information, as both a U.S. senator and a state attorney general joined the chorus of vocal concern.

Qwest has been under scrutiny since it sent out a notice to customers in its last billing cycle, informing them that the company planned to share personal customer information with its marketing partners unless customers opted out of the program. Since then, a number of Qwest customers, privacy groups and government representatives have expressed dismay at the sharing of such personal information on an opt-out basis rather than an opt-in program which would require that customers give authorization to the carrier before their information was shared.

Washington State Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire sent a letter to Qwest Washington Vice President Kirk Nelson Friday, requesting that the company throw its support behind a movement for telecom companies to re-adopt opt-in information-sharing policies.

Gregoire also criticized the carrier's method of informing its customers of its information-sharing practices.

"It is clear your notice was not written in clear and conspicuous terms or designed in any way to alert your customers to the important decision they should make," wrote Gregoire.

The carrier had little respite from the storm of criticism over the weekend, and then on Monday Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone sent a letter to U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael Powell urging the FCC to go to bat for Qwest customers to further protect their privacy. In the missive, the Midwest Democrat decried Qwest's information-sharing practices and lobbied the FCC to support a movement by dozens of state attorneys general for telecom companies to adopt opt-in privacy policies.

"As a Senator from Minnesota, a state where a majority of households are served by Qwest, I want to express strongly my view that the opt-out approach does not protect customers' privacy interests as envisaged by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996," Wellstone wrote.

The Act he referred to addressed the concern of "protecting the confidentiality of proprietary information,"and contained an opt-in provision for privacy policies.

However, in 1999 US West Inc., which merged with Qwest in 2000, won an appeal against the provision in Denver's 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that the rule violated telecom companies First Amendment rights to market their products.

Privacy advocates have taken a different tack on the matter, however, claiming that consumers' rights are being violated by the sharing of such confidential information such as billing information, including the phone numbers that customers call. Qwest's policies came under particular scrutiny following customer complaints that the privacy notices they received were ambiguous. Furthermore, some Qwest customers who chose to opt out of the program by calling a toll-free number provided by the carrier reported difficulties such as busy signals and labyrinth-like voicemail systems.

Even before complaints about Qwest began to surface, concern over telecom companies' privacy practices were already being raised.

In fact, attorneys general from 38 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia sent a complaint to the FCC last Dec. 21, requesting a reinstatement of the opt-in privacy policies for telecom companies.

The FCC began soliciting comments on the subject last year amid growing concern over the subject. Although the comment period expired in November, the agency is continuing to solicit comments.

It remains to be seen if the recent lobbying for opt-in policies and the pressure surrounding Qwest is enough for the carrier to change its practices.

No one from Qwest was immediately available to comment on the issue Tuesday.