If you don’t stop it, fix it, justice department tells AT&T-Time Warner trial judge

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It’s up to a federal judge to decide whether or not AT&T can buy Time Warner, and all the content and video channels that come along with it. The federal justice department tried to make the case that the deal would be anti-competitive and should be blocked. AT&T, naturally enough, claimed it wasn’t.

Some experts who followed the trial closely thought AT&T made the better case. The justice department has to prove that a vertical merger – when a company buys its supplier – would have the same destructive effect on competition as a horizontal one, when a company buys a competitor. That’s a tough sell, and it seems that justice department lawyers aren’t counting on total victory. In its closing brief, the justice department offered Plan B: a “targeted divestiture” – either allow AT&T to buy some of Time Warner’s content assets (HBO and Warner Brothers, but not Turner channels) or force it to give up ownership of DirecTv.

Usefully, the justice department argued strongly for a “structural”, rather than a “behavioral” remedy. The difference is that a structural solution involves a permanent change – divesting DirecTv or not acquiring Turner, for example – while a behavioral change only involves a promise not to do bad things in the future…

While structural relief eliminates the risk of harm, behavioral relief assumes regulatory conditions can effectively constrain a business’s natural incentives to maximize profits…Behavioral relief is also less effective at protecting competition than structural market-oriented remedies because it “can hardly be detailed enough to cover in advance all the many fashions in which improper influence [over the acquired company] might manifest itself.”

Just so. Behavioral remedies require ongoing oversight by regulators with little experience or interest in the business at hand, and lead to perpetual evasion by corporate execs and lawyers with all the incentive and resources in the world.

A decision is expected by mid-June.