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Out of the Blue

Ride the light...ride the light...ride the light.

Those blue beacons lighting up the Denver skyline must emit mysterious waves that hypnotize everyone in sight. How else to explain why, when several states are raising holy hell about Qwest's latest efforts to monitor your phone habits, interrupt your dinner and spill your private data, it's been relatively quiet on this stretch of the Western front.

But other consumers in Qwest's fourteen-state region are complaining long and loud about the "Important Notice" stuffed inside the company's last round of bills, bills already so overloaded with incomprehensible federal access charges and 911 surcharges and municipal charges and federal universal service fund tolls that a flier tagged with the words "the following information does not impact your Qwest billing" just doesn't seem that important.

You have thirty days to recognize otherwise.

"Qwest has a long history of treating customer account information confidentially," the flier notes. "We think that's one reason you trust us. As we develop new services, we want to maintain your trust while continuing to meet your service needs with innovative products. By sharing account information among Qwest's family of companies, and by aggregating information to learn more about trends and purchasing patterns, we can serve you better."

The "family" reference alone should make you nervous. Ever since I made the mistake of bundling cell-phone service in with my home number, I've heard from various Qwest family members pitching their plans at all hours, relatives who call more often than my own mother. It's enough to make you miss Ma Bell.

"We expect to share account information with Qwest companies, many of which you probably know," the flier continues. "In the future, we may change our structure or enter new lines of business.... As such changes happen, we will also share account information when it helps to provide you quality services, packages and promotions."

Presumably, Qwest isn't referring to all those new business lines that have taken founder Phil Anschutz in such interesting directions, including cornering the market on movie theaters and professional soccer leagues. ("Hey, we noticed that you were on the phone a long time with that friend in Los Angeles; he might enjoy an upcoming game at the Staples Center...") But where Qwest is involved, you shouldn't presume anything.

When Qwest merged with US West, we all presumed that our phone service would become more efficient, not more intrusive. Today, though, while we get teary-eyed remembering the bad old days of Sol Trujillo, Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio is chairing the Federal Communications Commission's Network Reliability and Interoperability Council, charged with ensuring our nation's communications security. ("During a 22-minute conversation with her mother last week, a certain columnist made several seditious cracks about airport security screening operations...")

Not content with merely strengthening family ties, the flier continues: "We also sometimes disclose account information to third parties who are not part of the Qwest family of companies when required by law, when it furthers prompt and accurate delivery of your service, or when it is commercially reasonable to do so." Commercially reasonable? Among Qwest's partners is Perot Systems, which last September shook hands on a deal to cross-sell products and services. That giant sucking sound you hear could be your private customer information heading right into Ross Perot's big ears. Big Brother isn't just watching, he's listening -- and he knows not only whom you talk to when and for how long, but where you're doing the talking.

In Arizona, customers irate at the prospect of their data being shared heated up a several-hour hearing called by the state's Corporation Commission; the commissioners may file an injunction to prevent Qwest from handing out any information. Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire fired off a letter to Qwest, asking for an extension of the time period during which customers can opt out of the deal -- originally set at thirty days from receipt of the flier and now extended to March 29 -- and a rewrite of the flier itself. "At this time of intense competition in the telecommunication industry," she said, "I think Qwest could send an important signal that it values its customers and respects their judgment by setting an example for all industries in its opt-out procedures." But Qwest would like to make that competition even more intense by offering long-distance services in its markets -- a service it could sell to the customers whose long-distance habits it's tracked on bills for years.

Last week, Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone joined the chorus of critics, urging Qwest to revise its data-sharing policy to allow customers to "opt in" instead -- a procedure more in line with FCC privacy rules and many states' interpretation of the law. And while no one is likely to opt for spilling his personal data, Qwest could improve its odds by promising to raffle off a piece of Nacchio's millions, or part of the billions of privacy-fanatic Anschutz.

But Colorado's elected officials have given Qwest a pass in its home state. "We're the lone voices in the wilderness," says Dian Callaghan, of the Office of Consumer Counsel; she and director Ken Reif will share their concerns at a meeting with Qwest next week. The company has already made some concessions -- in addition to extending the opt-out deadline, it's promised to send out another notice -- but the consumer advocate would like to see more and know much more. For example, if Qwest doesn't plan to share information with third parties, as it now claims, then why can you opt out of having your information shared with third parties?

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