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Opt out of telecom marketing

Phone companies can legally sell your private calling and Internet information unless you tell them not to. 02/01/07 ReleVents hed: Opt out of telecom marketing dek: Phone companies can legally sell your private calling and Internet information unless you tell them not to. by James Mathewson

The other night, I was watching a news story on how private investigators pose as law enforcement agents to get the phone records of citizens under their investigation. I was shocked at how easily representatives of Qwest were duped into giving up the private information–who people call, where, when, URLs, e-mail addresses, etc.–over either cellular or land-line phones, or the Internet. In fact, the reporter herself was able to obtain an individual’s entire phone record for several months.

Qwest’s lack of information security pales in comparison to the way it legally handles personal information with its business partners. As a story on our site details, Qwest’s opt-out privacy policies allow it to sell or otherwise distribute this personal information to anyone it calls a business partner (or anyone who buys parts of Qwest’s business), unless the customer specifically asks it not to. But it is a little-known fact among its customers that Qwest–indeed any phone company–can basically do with customer personal information as it wishes. So few customers take the time to tell Qwest not to sell their information. To quote Qwest’s legal notice on its Web site:

“Qwest does not release customer account information to unaffiliated third parties without your permission unless we have a business relationship with those companies where the disclosure is appropriate. For example, we may hire outside companies as contractors or agents; or we might be engaged in a joint venture or partnership with a company. Upon occasion, Qwest may decide to stop providing a service or may decide to sell or transfer parts of our business to unaffiliated companies. When this happens, we may provide confidential customer information to these companies so that they can offer you the same or similar services.”

One type of partner mentioned in the story is a telemarketing firm, which wants to know customer-calling habits in order to catch people while they’re at home. We get marketing materials at home all the time from Qwest for a service that blocks telemarketing calls and automatically notifies the callers to put us on their do-not-call lists. It turns outs some of these telemarketers are partners or affiliates of Qwest. In fact, a high percentage of our telemarketing calls push Qwest wireless, Qwest DSL, or even Qwest call-blacking services. Qwest provides our calling information to its telemarketing partners and tries to charge us to block the very same people from calling us. It’s a racket that we have been fortunate enough not to buy into. When I read the report off the wire, I initiated my opt-out strategy. And I have not bought into the call blocking. In my home state of Minnesota and many other states, the law says if you say eight simple words to telemarketers–“Put me on your do-not-call list”–they are legally bound to stop calling. Better to do this myself than pay $8 a month to have Qwest do it for me.

What really galls me about this is the way telecom companies like Qwest convinced the courts to reverse the opt-in laws, which were part of the 1996 Telecom Act. In 1999, US West (the company Qwest merged with, enabling it to get into local telecom) appealed the opt-in law and won. The residing 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver agreed with US West’s law team’s argument. Namely, the court decided that the FCC’s opt-in privacy provision violated phone companies’ First Amendment rights to market their products to consumers. Think of the precedent that this decision sets. Any company can claim that its customers’ private information is protected by free speech and can therefore be broadcast to the four winds. Fortunately, attorneys general from 39 states are pushing the FCC to re-instate the opt-in requirement. Hopefully, sometime this year, the FCC can restore some privacy to consumers who have no clue to what extent their personal telecom information is bought, sold, and traded by the Baby Bells and their partners.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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