Information Control, Market Concentration, and the AT&T/T-Mobile Deal

by on April 20, 2011 · 2 comments

Like Milton, I’m very worried about the political vulnerabilities that might arise if the wireless sector grows more concentrated. Still, I think it’s a big mistake to legitimize one repressive incarnation of coercive state power (antitrust intervention) to reduce the likelihood that another incarnation (information control) will intensify. This approach is not only defeatist, as Hance argues, but it also requires a tactical assessment that rests on several dubious assumptions.

First, Milton overestimates the marginal risk that the AT&T – T-Mobile deal will pave the way for an information control regime. The wireless market isn’t static; the disappearance of T-Mobile as an independent entity (which may well occur regardless of whether this deal goes through) hardly means we’re forever “doomed” to live with 3 nationwide wireless players. With major spectrum auctions likely on the horizon, and the possibility of existing spectrum holdings being combined in creative ways, the eventual emergence of one or more nationwide wireless competitors is quite possible — especially if, as skeptics of the AT&T – T-Mobile deal often argue, the wireless market underperforms in the years following the acquisition.

More importantly, network operators, like almost all Internet gatekeepers, face mounting pressure from their users not to facilitate censorship, surveillance, and repression. Case in point: AT&T is a leading member of the Digital Due Process coalition (to which I also belong) that’s urging Congress to substantially strengthen the 1986 federal statute that governs law enforcement access to private electronic communications. Consider that AT&T’s position on this major issue is officially at odds with the official position of the same Justice Department that’s currently reviewing the AT&T – T-Mobile deal. Would a docile, subservient network operator challenge its state overseers so publicly?

Or take Google. Arguably, it’s an enormously important gatekeeper — in many respects, it’s an even greater “chokepoint” than any single network operator — but the firm has held strong against substantial pressures from the U.S. government to facilitate censorship and surveillance. (See, e.g.: Google’s successful 2006 challenge to a Justice Department request seeking search query logs; Google’s recent refusal to remove DUI apps from its Android market; Google’s widely noted hesitance toward censoring search results absent a lawfully issued takedown request; Google’s 2010 joint amicus brief urging a federal district court to reject a Justice Department subpoena seeking to compel Yahoo! to disclose the contents of a user’s opened emails).

I could go on. The point is that large network operators are often willing to vigorously resist — both in private and in public — governmental demands that they facilitate information control. Working in cahoots with unpopular governmental actors is terrible PR; some major players seem to think it’s bad for business, too.

It’s often overlooked that antitrust intervention deprives us of beneficial competitive reactions to business deals — even deals that, viewed in isolation, appear to be “harmful.” The consequence of the AT&T – T-Mobile deal won’t simply be the two companies operating as a single entity; the deal will also force rivals to respond in unforeseeable ways that will tend to benefit consumers and fuel innovation. As Hance reminds us, this virtuous cycle of Schumpeterian creative destruction is fundamental to the long-term evolution of markets. When government blocks proposed business arrangements, it contributes to stasis — and static markets tend to be much easier to regulate and control than relatively dynamic markets.

To be sure, if the combination of AT&T and T-Mobile exacerbates political pressures for imposing a network information control regime, we cyber-libertarians should fight back vigorously. Turning to antitrust intervention to keep markets relatively unconcentrated — and, hence, more difficult to regulate — is a mistake.

If you welcome the growing pressures for regulating business arrangements in the high-tech sector, an emboldened antitrust regime is just what the doctor ordered.

  • Mueller

    Ryan, I guess you missed the news about AT&T’s cooperation with the warrantless wiretap program.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSA_warrantless_surveillance_controversy

  • Ryan Radia

    Your post focused primarily on companies aiding and abetting the government, so I focused on counterexamples. I did link to the AT&T wiretapping story above (Para 5., “terrible PR”). Helping the NSA illegally wiretap Americans was a huge mistake on AT&T’s part (I’ve publicly called on Congress to repeal the bill that granted them retroactive immunity for their actions, although I also support the repeal of the Wiretap Act’s statutory penalties for service providers voluntarily disclosing private communications to government.)

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