Attorney general nominee might look kindly on monopolies

19 November 2016 by Steve Blum
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But if you’re a dope smoking lowrider, bring some ID when you go to vote.

Next to the FCC, the federal justice department swings the biggest axe inside the Beltway when it comes to oversight of the telecommunications industry. It’s not wielded often, but the department’s antitrust powers have helped to shape the market for broadband, video and telephone services in the U.S.

Most recently, it sided with the Federal Communications Commission in killing Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and its mega-market swap with Charter. Then, when Charter came back with a plan to buy Time Warner Cable instead, justice department antitrust lawyers okayed the deal. It’ll likewise be in the game as AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner – the entertainment company, not the former cable operator – runs the same regulatory gauntlet.

That’s why Donald Trump’s choice of attorney matters to those of us in the broadband business. Jeff Sessions, a republican senator from Alabama was picked for that job, as announced yesterday. He faces a confirmation vote in the senate, but it’s rare that senators reject one of their own. Democrats will rough him up a bit, but senatorial self interest, um, trumps all but the most egregious political transgressions – senators with their eyes on their next job won’t want to set any dangerous precedents.

Sessions has little track record when it comes to antitrust laws. He’s a fan of government surveillance and slammed Apple for not giving up the groceries when the FBI wanted it to rewrite its operating system and make it possible to crack a terrorist’s iPhone. He follows conservative orthodoxy by talking tough on immigration and marijuana, and he’s a skeptic when it comes to some civil rights issues, including federal supervision of state election laws.

But otherwise, there’s not much to indicate which way he’ll jump when the plans of AT&T, CenturyLink and other ambitious monopolists are reviewed by antitrust enforcers, or if he’s called upon to defend past FCC actions that face court challenges. Top of that list is the decision to regulate broadband as a common carrier service. The only clue to his telecoms policy leanings come from republican FCC commissioner and prospective chairman Ajit Pai who worked for Sessions as a senate staffer and who commends “senator Sessions’ nomination without reservation“. That comes from a republican regulator who has largely opposed major telecoms policy passed by the FCC’s democratic majority, and done so in increasingly strident tones.

I think it’s more than just the predictable words of an aspiring Trump apparatchik. From what meager evidence is available, it appears to be an indicator that where the telecoms industry is concerned, Pai and Sessions will be walking the same ideological and political path.