DES MOINES.We are very pleased that Qwest has assured us explicitly that Qwest does not share customer account information - including calling and billing records - for commercial purposes with non-Qwest "third-party" companies. Qwest also will not share customer account information with Qwest affiliate companies, such as Qwest Wireless or Qwest Dex, until after March 29, and the company is substantially increasing its ability to accommodate customers who want to "opt out" of Qwest sharing account information with affiliates.
Although we continue to believe that telephone customer account information should remain private and should not be shared unless customers "opt in" and approve such sharing, Qwest's assurances are very helpful and ease some of our top concerns.
We were very troubled by possible implications of the customer notice on sharing account information that was contained in recent Qwest bills. The insert says Qwest expects to share "account information," including calling or billing records, with affiliated Qwest companies. The notice also says, "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." And the notice says Qwest may provide account information to companies "that have marketing agreements with us."
The most troubling specter for us, and for consumers who called our office, was that the customer notice insert could be construed to mean that Qwest might disclose customers' calling information - for example, who they called and when and for how long - to telemarketers or other third-party companies.
When we learned of the notice and heard from consumers, we contacted Qwest to state our concern especially about the prospect of customer calling information being disclosed to third party companies.
We appreciate Qwest's responsiveness to our concerns:
First, Qwest promptly accepted our invitation to meet on the issue. Max A. Phillips, Vice President - Iowa for Qwest, and Mike Ralston, Qwest Director for Policy and Law, met January 9 with me and members of my staff and Utility Board staff. The Qwest officials assured us that Qwest did not and does not intend to disclose account information to telemarketers or other third parties, except as needed for system interoperability (such as billing for a long distance company, or 911 information to public safety agencies.)
Second, Qwest indicated that it would not share account information with affiliates until after March 29 (and Qwest rightly noted that consumers also may opt out at any time after that.) Qwest also said it was taking immediate steps in order to handle the high volume of calls and contacts from customers asking to opt out.
Third, Qwest provided a letter Jan. 15 from Max Phillips to our office stating the assurances in fuller detail for the record. "We do not share customer account information with anyone else," the letter said (other than with Qwest affiliates and except to third parties as required by law or to prevent fraud, for example.) "Our bill insert did not intend to obtain authority to sell such information," the Qwest letter said. The letter also noted measures Qwest is taking to handle contacts from consumers who wish to opt out of Qwest sharing account information - adding 290 trained people to handle toll-free calls, for example.
I do want to note that the Attorney General's Office continues to believe that telephone customers should have "opt-in" rights when it comes to disclosure of calling and other account information, not just "opt-out" rights. (Qwest is providing the opportunity for consumers to opt out.) The "opt-in" or "opt-out" question is an issue pending before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Current, interim FCC regulations permit telephone companies to employ opt-out arrangements, so long as they provide notice to consumers on means to opt out.
On December 21, the Iowa Attorney General's Office and a total of 38 states submitted a formal joint "comment" urging the FCC to promulgate rules requiring telephone companies to operate under "opt-in" regimes - where consumers would affirmatively have to permit their customer information to be shared with other companies, whether affiliated or third-party. The States argued that some customer information is very sensitive - especially calling records - and that most customers do not notice bill inserts telling them how to "opt out" of sharing their personal information. We continue to believe that personal, private information such as who citizens call should not be shared for marketing purposes without the clear and unequivocal approval of the citizens who place the calls.
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(Residential customers should call toll free the Qwest opt-out number -- 1-877-628-3732. Residential customers may also let Qwest know their preference by using the following web site: www.qwest.com/cpni).