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 you with?"
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 now?!").
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 angry investors.
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 trading.
"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?"
At 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 I'm staying."
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'? Well done."
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?"
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company