Qwest Goes From the Goat to the Hero
By Tom Zeller Jr.
New York Times
Monday, May 15, 2006
Few customers are given to gushing about their phone
companies, but before last week's report that
Qwest Communications was apparently the lone holdout
among the Big Four telecommunications companies secretly
supplying the National Security Agency with call records on
ordinary Americans, the Denver-based company was often
referred to by online grumblers as "the Qworst."
Whether or not that reputation had been healed by the
company's unexpected (and perhaps overstated) turn as
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 the N.S.A. program was "an
acceptable way to investigate terrorism."
What's certain is that news of the N.S.A. 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 a beacon of consumer protection.
"Qwest: N.S.A.-Free," exclaims an image button making the
rounds on liberal blogs at the end of last week. "Who are
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 (snipurl.com/usefulfools).
"I pay for service that I don't get!" the post continued.
"Down with Qwest! I will never use them again!"
Another customer said simply: "My only regret about Qwest
is that they don't have any local offices, so I can't beat
them to death with my bare hands."
To be fair, it's equally easy to scan consumer complaint
sites and find irate customers berating
Verizon in the plainest of terms ("Can you hear me
But even as Qwest jockeyed in the late 1990's to become one
of the first telecoms to offer bundled services — telephone,
Internet, television, wireless — all on one bill, its
reputation for poor customer service, dyslexic billing and
overall corporate skullduggery has overshadowed its
ambitions, making its sudden turn as champion of consumer
interests all the more incongruous.
The company settled a Securities and Exchange Commission
fraud inquiry in 2004 for $250 million. An additional $400
million was agreed to in October as partial settlement with
And the company's former chief executive, Joseph P. Nacchio,
who was cast last week as a thoughtful hero who resisted the
N.S.A.'s strong-arming, still faces 42 counts of insider
"They've always had the worst service record in terms of
getting things installed and keeping them working," said
James R. Hood, the founder of
Consumeraffairs.com, a consumer advocacy and complaint
site. Qwest is listed among many companies in the site's
"Rogues Gallery" — primarily, Mr. Hood said, for the number
of complaints about Qwest's willy-nilly billing.
AT&T, Verizon and
BellSouth had all been providing the N.S.A. with call
records (under contract and for a price, of course), 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 left-wing blog Empire Burlesque. "When
will you have cell service in Ohio?"
Americablog.com, Melissa chirped: "I just switched to
Qwest. It took two minutes."
Companies can't buy that kind of buzz.
Of course, some of the praise was more grudging —
particularly among existing Qwest customers who nonetheless
oppose what they considered to be government snooping.
"Good for Qwest, but, ugh, an otherwise horrible phone
company," wrote Craig Randall, at Americablog.
A current (and unhappy) Qwest customer from Iowa reported
that "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. "Just when I thought I was done with them they
go and do something terrific. I'll write and tell them why
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the company's core
products, but a customer is a customer.
On the backside of all this, of course, is the other half of
the political divide. Indeed, although President Bush's
approval ratings have dropped into the high 20's in some
polls, it is worth noting that Qwest's business extends only
to 14 mostly red Western states.
"Thank you Qwest," wrote one commenter who was not really
with the program at
ThankyouQwest.com. "What will your next advertising
campaign be — 'Qwest: Telecom provider to the terrorists'?
Another commenter, at the conservative blog
LittleGreenFootballs.com, summed up a disturbing
sentiment emanating from the right: "If the N.S.A. wants to
listen in on my calls, by all means go for it," wrote
TotallySirius. "I have nothing to hide."
It's 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. And 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
F.B.I. — another end-run, consumer advocates argue,
around the 1974 Privacy Act, which was aimed at preventing
the government from aggregating data on ordinary Americans,
precisely because it could not be trusted. The act didn't
envision giant commercial databases, or that one day, the
government could simply buy its way around the law.
"I don't get Qwest here," wrote another infuriated user at
Americablog. "Does anyone know if T-Mobile is involved?"