Why we should cheer the DoJ's lawsuit to block the AT&T/Time-Warner merger

Susan Crawford, one of America's leading scholars of monopolism, competition and the tech industry, has an outstanding article in Wired laying out the principled case for killing the AT&T/Time-Warner merger, which the Trump DoJ has just filed a lawsuit to block.

Crawford carefully lays out the real harms that have arisen from similar mergers (Universal Comcast, especially) and the sorry state of competition regulation in America today, which has strangled innovation and contributed significantly to wealth inequality.

Of course, Trump doesn't want to kill the merger because of principle or a commitment to anti-monopoly; he wants to kill it to punish CNN.

But just because Trump hates something bad for the wrong reasons, it doesn't make that thing good. When Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it was cause for celebration, even if Trump's actions were undertaken for selfish, terrible reasons.

Trump is part of an anti-establishment moment, though that's not because he wants a fairer system — he just wants his cronies and oligarchs to sit on the top of the unfair system we have now. Nevertheless, that anti-establishment orientation means that Trump will sometimes destroy things that frankly need killing, and we'd be fools to stick up for the indefensible just because Trump hates it too.

This is especially important in tech, where there's a creeping sense that any regulatory oversight of the big platforms, or any brakes on their monopoly power, is part of the Trump war on free expression and resistance to his agenda (it is, in fact, part of that war!) — but if Trump weakens the platforms and curbs monopolism, that'll be good news for anti-Trumpists, and we'd be short-sighted fools to think otherwise. That's why it was so distressing when Wired ran a story yesterday under the headline GOVERNMENT MOVE TO BLOCK AT&T MERGER BODES ILL FOR BIG TECH. The best thing that could happen to big tech is for it to have to innovate and improve, rather than acquire and financially engineer.

And that's just part of the problem. As so-called over the top, online competition to this must-have content emerges, AT&T-as-data-provider will have a zillion ways to make that content less attractive to consumers. Sure, you can send your content over their network, but yours will be subject to data caps that AT&T content isn't. You'll be routed differently, over a portion of the AT&T delivery network that will be both dismal and labeled "public internet." (And once the FCC's regulatory authority over high-speed internet access providers is dismantled by the new FCC head, nothing will stop those things from happening.)

Again, a bulked-up, Turner-enriched AT&T will have ample incentive and ability to stifle these new efforts—in order to protect its pay-TV distribution model, or at least slow the gradual move toward online content. Again, AT&T/DirecTV's own words show they aim to follow this strategy: the company says it intends to "work to make [online video services] less attractive." The executives have concluded that the "runway" for the decline of traditional pay-TV "may be longer than some think given the economics of the space," and that it is "upon us to utilize our assets to extend that runway." The merger would give AT&T increased power to do just that.


[Susan Crawford/Wired]

(Image: Quarax, CC-BY-SA)