New York Attorney General maintains opposition to T-Mobile/Sprint merger

The T-Mobile/Sprint merger might have received official backing from government agencies, but New York Attorney General Letitia James is not giving up on her case to block it.

The backdrop to this recommitment to the cause is a slightly unusual one. The press conference itself was focused on a lawsuit which was filed against Juul, an e-cigarette company James is looking to have banned, but the floor was opened-up to ‘any other business’.

“Our case against T-Mobile is an antitrust violation, obviously we’re concerned with anti-competitive behaviour,” said James. “Providing public benefits are good but they do not address the antitrust violation.”

In announcing John Legere will step-down from the top job at T-Mobile US, and outlining the succession plan, T-Mobile US is clearly confident the deal will now pass without complication. However, James is a very interesting opponent.

James comes across as an incredibly ambitious individual, and it might not surprise that many if she decides to run for alternative public office positions. It is too late for James to throw her hat into the ring for next years’ elections, though there will plenty of opportunity for this lawyer to climb the greasy pole of politics.

This is what should worry any of the firms James has cast her eye on. Politicians love a war story, a scalp to display in front of the voting public. Campaign speeches are full of rhetoric of how that individual has selflessly fought for the general public and won. Next time a US politician takes the stage at a campaign rally, note the number of times the following phase (or variant of) is used;

When I was [insert previous position] I fought for the people of [insert place] to [insert social equality example].

If James has grander political ambitions, she will need plenty of war stories. It is a tool in the popularity contest which is politics and fighting against the T-Mobile US/Sprint merger could be a perfect example. The Juul case is another, while James has been pretty vocal in pursuit of President Trump’s tax filings.

James has decided the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger is anticompetitive. The position is relatively simple; more service providers means more competition, which is only good for the consumer. There are of course pros and cons to both sides of the telco consolidation argument, but James has set her position, and this will not be changed. With the trial set to begin on December 9, this saga might come to a close soon.

50 US Attorney Generals sign-up to Google antitrust investigation

Usually, when you put 50 lawyers in a room together, it’s a bloodbath, but Google has seemingly done the impossible; united them all behind a single cause.

Led by Ken Paxton, the Attorney General representing the State of Texas, the coalition brings all except two State Attorney General’s on board, California and Alabama, as well as the legal minds representing Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

“Now, more than ever, information is power, and the most important source of information in Americans’ day-to-day lives is the internet,” said Paxton. “When most Americans think of the internet, they no doubt think of Google.

“There is nothing wrong with a business becoming the biggest game in town if it does so through free market competition, but we have seen evidence that Google’s business practices may have undermined consumer choice, stifled innovation, violated users’ privacy, and put Google in control of the flow and dissemination of online information. We intend to closely follow the facts we discover in this case and proceed as necessary.”

Paxton has pointed out in the statements that the Government and its agencies does not have an issue with a dominant market player (we don’t believe this however), but it must maintain this dominance by playing within the rules. This is where Paxton believes Google has become non-compliant with US law; it is stifling competition and the choice for consumers.

The difficulty the legal coalition will face in this investigation to start with is the reason behind Google’s market domination; it offers the best search service on the web. Some might disagree, but we believe it is the most effective and accurate internet search engine available. This will be one of the reasons behind the continued dominance, though there are of course others; these other factors will determine whether Google is abusing this position of dominance.

One area which might become of interest to the Attorney Generals is the roll of acquisitions in maintaining this leadership position. Of course, M&A is a perfectly valid means of growing a business, though should such transactions be deemed as a means for Google to kill off any competition which could potentially emerge, this would be a violation of antitrust laws.

This is where the probes will find it very difficult to fight against Google and the other giants of Silicon Valley; can anything be done against potentially anti-competitive acquisitions? In the Google case, some might suggest it shouldn’t have been allowed to acquire both Android and YouTube to supplement its PC search advertising business. This suggestion is of course made with hindsight, though there will be some who will attempt to do something about it.

Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat Senator for Massachusetts and potential opponent for President Trump in the 2020 Elections, has already promised to break-up the tech giants. FTC Chairman Joe Simons is another who has the divestment ambition, though he has stated it would have to be done sooner rather than later, as Big Tech is manoeuvring assets and operations in an attempt to make any divestments almost impossible.

What this investigation does offer is another layer of scrutiny placed on the internet giants. This investigation might well be directed at Google, but any precedent which is set could be applied to the other residents of Silicon Valley.

When you actually stand back and look at the investigations which are on-going, the US Government is creating a swiss cheese model of legal nightmares for the internet giants. The more layers which are applied, the less likely Big Tech can squeeze through the legal loopholes and come out unscathed on the other end. The likes of Google will have the finest legal minds on the payroll, but the legal assaults are coming quickly, and from all angles.

Aside from this investigation, Google has also recently confirmed it is at the centre of a Department of Justice probe and is also facing the House Judiciary Committee’s examination into big tech antitrust. And then it will have to consider the potential implications of other enquiries.

Facebook is being investigated by the FTC for its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, as is the House Judiciary Committee. New York Attorney General Letitia James is asking whether the social media giant has damaged the consumers lives through its operations. Finally, the House Financial Services Committee as well as the Senate Banking Committee is investigating the Facebook push into cryptocurrency.

At Amazon, the FTC is investigating how the eCommerce giant competes against and aids third-party sellers on its platform, while at Apple, the House Judiciary Committee probe is attempting to understand whether the commission it takes from developers through the App Store is anti-competitive.

Each of these investigations will create precedent which can be applied to others in the Silicon Valley fraternity. It also gives any failed attempts to limit the potential of Big Tech another opportunity. There are plenty of irons in the fire and Silicon Valley will do well to avoid a branding altogether.

With the sheer volume, breadth and depth of investigations scrutinising the business models of the internet giants, it is starting to become impossible to believe the regulatory status quo will be maintained. The sun might be setting on the Wild West Web.

To date, Silicon Valley has enjoyed what should be considered a very light-touch regulatory environment. For us, there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, regulators and legislators simply could not keep up with the progress being made by the technology industry, or perhaps did not foresee the influence these giants might be able to wield. Whether it is a shortage of bodies, skilled workers being snapped up by private industry or simply too many different segments to regulate, the progress of technology leapt ahead of the rules which were supposed to govern it. The internet giants have been profiting greatly off this regulatory and legislative void.

Secondly, you have to wonder whether regulators and legislators actually wanted to put the reigns on the digital economy and the power houses normalising it in the eyes of the consumer. These companies are driving economic growth and creating jobs. The US is at the forefront of an industry which will dominate the world for decades to come; why would the Government want to stifle the industry which is keeping the US economy at the head of the international community.

With both of these explanations, perhaps it has gotten to a point where excess is being realised. The technology industry has become too powerful and it needs to be reigned in. Some might argue that Silicon Valley has more influence than Washington, which will make some in Government feel very uneasy.

Oregon joins the anti-merger brigade to dampen T-Mobile/Sprint party

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has is the latest recruit for the coalition of lawyers aiming to block the merger between T-Mobile US and Sprint.

Almost immediately after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai offered his blessing for the union, Rosenblum hit back with the announcement. T-Mobile US and Sprint might be collecting the approvals from government agencies, but unless they can figure out how to appease the Attorney Generals, another headache looms large on the horizon.

“It’s important that Oregon join other states in opposing the Sprint-T-Mobile merger,” said Rosenblum. “If left unchallenged, the current plan will result in reduced access to affordable wireless service in Oregon — and higher prices. Neither is acceptable.

“Oregon’s addition to our lawsuit keeps our momentum going and ensures that there isn’t a single region of this country that doesn’t oppose this anticompetitive megamerger,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James. “We welcome Attorney General Rosenblum to our 16-member coalition that now includes states representing almost half of the U.S. population. We remain committed to blocking the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint because it would be bad for consumers, bad for workers, and bad for innovation.”

James is of course the ring-leader when it comes to this legal saga, though we suspect in crafting the position of consumer champion, the Attorney General of New York has higher political ambitions. Irrelevant to the end-game, James has proven to be very effective in collecting support for this lawsuit.

Rosenblum will now become the 16th member of an increasingly dangerous opponent for T-Mobile US and Sprint. One lawyer as an opponent is a daunting prospect, but 16 Attorney Generals and 16 antitrust department working against the progress of the merger is the stuff corporate nightmares are made of.

The full list of States now opposing the merger include: New York, California, Texas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

Having been filed with the District Court for New York on June 11, we suspect this might be somewhat of a prolonged battle. First, judges in New York will have to decide on the appropriateness of the merger, though you can almost guarantee whatever outcome will be appealed by the losing party. We suspect this is a see-sawing legal conflict which will carry on for months.

T-Mobile US and Sprint are nearing the finish line, but it is still well out of reach for the moment.

Washington DC takes Zuckerberg to court

The Attorney General for the District of Columbia has filed a lawsuit against Facebook on the grounds of failing to protect user’s privacy and enabling one of the biggest digital scandals to date.

It was only going to be a matter of time before one of the Attorney Generals took the opportunity to take Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies to court, the big question which remains is how many of them will do so. The Cambridge Analytica scandal might be old news in the eyes of the consumer nowadays, but the lawyers aren’t forgetting about it. Blood has been smelt and Washington DC is going to have the first bite.

“Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and deceived them about who had access to their data and how it was used,” said Attorney General Karl Racine.

“Facebook put users at risk of manipulation by allowing companies like Cambridge Analytica and other third-party applications to collect personal data without users’ permission. Today’s lawsuit is about making Facebook live up to its promise to protect its users’ privacy.”

The lawsuit itself relates back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, focusing on Facebook’s inability to meet expectations and commitments when it comes to data protection and privacy, but also the firm’s role in allowing the 2016 Presidential Election to be manipulated. It’s the permission to use data, or lack thereof, which is the big issue here. Cambridge Analytica harvested the data and sold it onto a political consulting firm, none of which it was entitled to do.

This is perhaps one of the biggest grey areas of the digital economy as while technology firms have streamed ahead in how data can be commercialised, rule makers have struggled to keep pace. Firms like Facebook has taken advantage of this regulatory void but cases like this will aim to hold them accountable retrospectively.

This is one of the most difficult things about innovation. Because these firms are playing with new ideas for the first time there is no precedent to where the line between right and wrong should be. In most cases, this would be an effective defence, as while most governments will of course want to protect citizens, they will also want to encourage innovation and exploration. In this case however, Facebook might not be able to lean on this idea.

Recent documents released by the UK government demonstrate not only that Facebook was aware there might unethical and illegal aspects to these practises, but that this knowledge went from the bottom to the top of the organization. The internal emails, which were secured by Six4Three during its own lawsuit against Facebook, paint a very deceptive and nefarious picture of the firm, with no regard to the opinion or privacy of the user.

Facebook is in a hole right now, which seems to be getting deeper and deeper. While it cannot shake off the Cambridge Analytica scandal, new controversies are being thrown at the platform, including the most recent claim. Rumbling through the world as we speak are claims Facebook granted certain technology companies, such as Netflix and Spotify, access to user’s private messages.

Facebook will of course end up in court and considering it has admitted wrong-doing on several occasions, there will be heavy punishments laid out. One of the big questions which remain is how many of the Attorney Generals across the US will bring their own lawsuit forward.

New York wades in to the T-Mobile/Sprint debate

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood could prove to be another hurdle for T-Mobile and Sprint to overcome in their headache-inducing merger.

The problem for the pair is there seem to be a lot more objections surrounding the tie-up than there has been support. After T-Mobile CEO John Legere seemingly got little response from his appeal to MVNOs to support the transaction, the wild-eyed leader has opened up to opinions from staff; a dangerous move considering some would certainly be under threat of redundancy.

Perhaps what the duo didn’t need are objections from the New York Attorney General Office over fears the consumer might get screwed. According to the New York Post, the objection is relatively simple. T-Mobile runs a prepaid service called MetroPCS, while Sprint has Boost and Virgin Mobile. Bringing all three into the same business could lead to one or more being scrapped, reducing competition. Secondly, all three are incredibly aggressive on pricing, but again, bringing all three into the same business could end this trend of undercutting, and an increase in price. The New Yorkers are concerned tariffs could become too expensive for some.

While objections from a few lawyers might not be the worst thing in the world for T-Mobile and Sprint, it seems there is a queue forming. In fact, the FCC released a notice last week which stated the Attorney General Offices of Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have all requested information to assist their own investigations into the merger. The lawyers are lurking, and the more who gather around the fire, the less pleasing the situation appears for T-Mobile and Sprint.

This of course might mean nothing. All major parties in the US are perfectly entitled to do their own due diligence surrounding the deal as transitioning from a market with four major telcos down to three is a massive move. Considering there will be regions across the country where this transaction effectively creates a communications monopoly, every chance to scrutinise the deal should be taken.

As it stands, the self-appointed shot-clock on approving the deal at the FCC is on hold. This again is simply down to the magnitude and the potentially significant consequences of the deal, and should not be surprising at all, but the longer it stands still, we suspect the more nervous executives will become. Mergers of this nature have already been shot down in the US, and this deal does seem to be hanging in the balance.

Net neutrality refuses to die; is it some form of genetically-modified super-cat?

With a coalition of 23 Attorney Generals (AGs) asking Federal judges to reinstate net neutrality rules, you have to wonder what experiments have been conducted on net neutrality; how many lives does it actually have?

Led by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, the coalition has filed a brief with United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to block the FCC’s rollback of net neutrality, which the AGs have deemed illegal. The brief is just another chapter in the saga of net neutrality, which despite the best efforts from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, refuses to disappear from the regulatory landscape.

“A free and open internet is critical to New York – and to our democracy,” said Underwood. “By repealing net neutrality, the FCC is allowing internet service providers to put their profits before consumers while controlling what we see, do, and say online.

“As we detail in our brief filed today, the rollback of net neutrality will have a devastating impact on millions of New Yorkers and Americans across the country, putting them at risk of abusive practices while undermining state and local regulation of the broadband industry. We’ll continue to fight to protect consumers’ right to a free and open internet.”

Aside from Underwood representing New York, AGs from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia, are providing the resistance to Pai.

The brief itself focuses on two areas. Firstly, the FCC’s order is arbitrary and capricious because it exposes the consumer to potential abuses from communications providers. And secondly, the AGs have deemed the FCC’s mission to undermine state regulations as illegal. While protecting the consumer is common rhetoric for this battle, the state versus federal jurisdiction fight is starting to emerge again.

The brief also seems to ask the Court of Appeals to apply some logic to the situation. Why should such a drastic reversal in regulation be allowed?

“For more than fifteen years, the Federal Communications Commission has agreed that an open Internet free from blocking, throttling, or other interference by service providers is critical to ensure that all Americans have access to the advanced telecommunications services that have become essential for daily life,” the brief states. “The recent Order represents a dramatic and unjustified departure from this long-standing commitment.”

While net neutrality has been officially banned from the rule books, the resistance to change is on-going. Pai is trying to remove every footnote and possible means a Democrat government could use to reinstate the rules, most recently he is trying to reverse the decision to classify telcos as common utilities, supporters are not making it easy. That said, the resistance could use a win pretty sharpish.

The AGs, internet players, privacy advocates and general busybodies do seem to be making life difficult for Pai, but the momentum is most certainly with FCC plans to eradicate net neutrality. The resistance is proving to be nothing more than an irritation at the moment, though a win in the courts would certainly provide genuine progress. Unfortunately, that win is yet to appear. Hopefully this brief will kickstart some action.