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Qwest scrambles to address customer service problems in Seattle

Qwest Communications has brought in additional customer service representatives and added new switches to handle heavy call volumes in metropolitan Seattle generated by customers seeking to inform the carrier they don’t want their personal information shared with third-party organizations.

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According to the Seattle Times, dozens of customers calling a toll-free number set up specifically for them to “opt-out” of the customer information sharing plan were greeted by hang-ups, disconnects and surly customer service reps, many of whom allegedly used the opportunity to sell new Qwest services.

A Qwest spokesman acknowledged “some confusion” concerning the execution of the opt-out plan but stressed the carrier was working hard to make the necessary adjustments.

The Telecom Act prohibits telecommunications providers from sharing customer information with outside parties without the customer’s permission. The FCC issued a rule in 1998 that required a customer to opt-in before data could be shared. Qwest challenged the rule in federal court and won, which prompted the commission to revisit the issue. The comment period for the new rule expired in November, but the FCC has granted an extension. (Comments may be submitted via the FCC Web site: www.fcc.gov.)

Mikal Condon, staff counsel for Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based privacy advocacy group, said much of the confusion stemmed from the manner in which Qwest communicated the opt-out plan to its customers.

“The notice was included in the papers that fly out of the bill when you open it, which most people just end up throwing away,” she said, adding that the way the notice was worded was also a problem. “It said the information didn’t affect the customer’s bill, so most people didn’t read any further.”

She said this strikes at the heart of why the opt-out strategy isn’t effective for protecting customer privacy rights: Too much of the burden is placed on the customer. “Most people are completely unaware of their rights. If customers had to opt-in, the burden would shift to the carriers,” which would have to effectively communicate to the customer not only their rights under the Telecom Act, but also the benefits they would receive by participating in the information-sharing plan. “The customer needs to be able to decide which has more value, the benefits or the privacy, and opt-in is the only effective way to do that,” she said.

Condon expressed dismay that Qwest would choose to implement the opt-out strategy in the absence of a clear FCC rule on the matter. But Qwest’s spokesman said the commission issued a clarifying rule in September that allowed the opt-out strategy. “EPIC is forgetting some of the facts,” he said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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