By Tom Zeller Jr.
The New York Times
The 1974 Privacy Act was aimed at preventing the government from
piling up data on Americans precisely because it could not be
trusted. The act did not envision giant commercial databases, or that
one day, the government could simply buy its way around the law.
Before last week's report that Qwest Communications was apparently the
lone holdout among the four largest U.S. telecommunications companies
secretly supplying the National Security Agency with Americans'
phone-call records, online grumblers often called Qwest by a different
Whether or not that reputation has been healed by the company's
unexpected, and perhaps overstated, turn as a defiant protector of
consumer privacy is unclear. A hastily conducted Washington Post-ABC
News poll did suggest on Friday that 63 percent of Americans thought
that the security agency's program was "an acceptable way to
What is clear is that news of the agency program, particularly in this
fiercely polarized political climate, has turned a beleaguered
regional phone company with a somewhat lackluster customer service
record into a gleaming political touchstone and beacon of consumer
"Qwest: NSA-Free," exclaims an image button making the rounds on
liberal blogs at the end of last week. "Who are you with?"
Compare that to typical online commentary before last week:
"I have had a problem with my home phone line for over a year!" reads
a rant at the Useful Fools blog. "I pay for service that I don't get!
Down with Qwest! I will never use them again!"
To be fair, it is equally easy to scan consumer complaint sites and
find irate customers berating, for example, Verizon in the plainest of
terms -- "Can you hear me now?!"
Lousy Service With a Backbone?
Even as Qwest jockeyed in the late 1990s to become one of the first
U.S. telecommunications companies to offer bundled services --
telephone, Internet, television, wireless all on one bill -- its
reputation for poor customer service, confusing billing and corporate
misdeeds has overshadowed its ambitions, making its sudden turn as
champion of consumer interests all the more incongruous.
The company, which is based in Denver, settled a Securities and
Exchange Commission fraud inquiry in 2004 for US$250 million. An
additional $400 million was agreed to in October as a partial
settlement with angry investors.
"They've always had the worst service record in terms of getting
things installed and keeping them working," said James Hood, founder
of Consumeraffairs.com, a consumer advocacy and complaint site.
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth had all been providing the NSA with call
records under a contract, USA Today reported. Only Qwest had refused,
according to the report, citing the "legal implications of handing
over customer information to the government without warrants."
"Thank you Qwest! It's nice to see someone following principle over
profits," wrote a user named Terra at ThankyouQwest.org, a Web site
hastily erected by the purveyors of the liberal blog Empire
Burlesque. "When will you have cell service in Ohio?"
At Americablog.com, Melissa said: "I just switched to Qwest. It took
Of course, some of the praise was more grudging -- particularly among
Qwest customers who nonetheless oppose what they considered to be
"Good for Qwest, but, ugh, an otherwise horrible phone company," Craig
Randall wrote at Americablog.
A current, and unhappy, Qwest customer from Iowa reported, "We have
only recently had an option to switch local providers in this rural
area, and I have planned to leave Qwest and go with a smaller outfit
built by my town." No longer.
Government Buying Its Way Around the Law? "Just when I thought I was
done with them they go and do something terrific," the customer
said. "I'll write and tell them why I'm staying."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the company's core products, but
a customer is a customer.
It is worth noting that telephone companies and banks, and shoe
warehouses, magazines, courts, video rental stores and online
retailers are buying and selling and sharing our personal information
all the time.
Much of it is gobbled up by large data warehouses, which in turn
peddle access to the government.
ChoicePoint, the world's largest data broker, recently signed a
five-year, $12 million contract with the FBI -- another end-run,
consumer advocates contend, around the 1974 Privacy Act, which was
aimed at preventing the government from piling up data on Americans
precisely because it could not be trusted.
The act did not envision giant commercial databases, or that one day,
the government could simply buy its way around the law.
Copyright 2006 New York Times.
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