Julian Hattem

AT&T claims merger is about ‘consumer demand’

AT&T and DirecTV executives will make the case to lawmakers that the proposed $49 billion deal to merge the two companies is necessary to stay competitive.

“This transaction is about meeting consumer demand,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told members of the House Judiciary’s Antitrust subcommittee in his prepared testimony. “It’s about providing consumers with the integrated video and broadband Internet services they want, delivered over any type of device, to nearly anywhere in the country.”

AT&T offers phone and Internet service, but its television offerings do not turn a profit and “cannot meet the needs of enough consumers,” Stephenson claimed, noting that the company’s U-verse service operates in less than one-quarter of the country. And even in those markets, AT&T doesn’t have the “scale” to “to forge strong relationships with programmers and compete effectively against the dominant cable companies,” he said.

DirecTV, which has about 20 million TV subscribers in the US but no Internet service, needs the deal in order to keep up with the changing market, the satellite company’s chief executive Michael White added.

“If we want to compete effectively in today’s Internet-driven marketplace, we must adapt,” he claimed in prepared testimony. That means “integrated bundles” of TV and Internet service, like the deals offered by competitors at Comcast and Time Warner Cable, as well as the ability to offer subscribers chances to watch television online with companies like Netflix.

Russia calls for Twitter censorship

Russia wants Twitter to block or censor some “extremist” accounts, a top regulator said. The head of the country’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, claimed to ask for 12 “extremist” accounts to be deleted or restricted in a meeting with the head of Twitter’s public policy division during the executive’s first official trip to Russia.

“I hope the content of some extremist blogs will be deleted,” Alexander Zharov said, according to the state-owned ITAR-TASS news service. “It concerns not only Russian users. Even if the account has been registered on the territory of Ukraine, this information would be considered extremist as well," he added. "The management of Twitter has heard us, and I hope that these accounts will be deleted in the nearest time.”

Media mega-mergers under the microscope

Megamergers are heading back to Congress with lawmakers set to probe AT&T’s $49 billion bid to buy DirecTV, the second mammoth media deal to come under scrutiny in 2014.

The hearing comes with many lawmakers expressing growing skepticism about the trend toward consolidation following earlier hearings on the proposed Comcast and Time Warner Cable deal. That sentiment could boil over when the AT&T and DirecTV executives come to Washington for a set of double-header hearings in the House and Senate.

“On the one hand you’ve got to look at each of these mergers on their own individual merit but you can’t ignore the broader landscape,” said John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at the consumer interest group Public Knowledge.

“Yes, you have to just look at the facts of this one but you also have to bear in mind an ever more concentrated communications market,” added Bergmayer, who has been critical of the deal and is slated to testify in the House. Both AT&T and DirecTV say they are missing a crucial component in the suite of services that their subscribers are looking for.

Sens Rubio, Booker want more airwaves for Wi-Fi

Sens Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) want more space in the nation’s airwaves for Wi-Fi Internet.

“In a century defined by drastic and colossal technological advancement, it is hard going even a day without using our cell phones, tablets and other wireless devices,” Sen Rubio said. “But our wireless devices rely on spectrum, a valuable and limited resource.”

To free up space for the devices, the two senators introduced a bill requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore opening new chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum for unlicensed use. Wi-Fi routers operate alongside garage door openers and other consumer electronics on those airwaves.

“Not only does access to wireless broadband open the door for innovation and transformative new technologies, it helps bridge the digital divide that leaves too many low-income communities removed from the evolving technology landscape and the growing economic opportunities,” Sen Booker added. The Wi-Fi Innovation Act is the second in a trio of bills Rubio has been touting to tackle the spectrum “crunch,” in which increasing data usage comes up against finite airwave space.

Senate Dems to Obama: Don't wait for us on NSA

A trio of Senate Democrats says President Barack Obama should end contested National Security Agency (NSA) operations immediately, without waiting for Congress.

In a letter, the same day the agency’s legal authority to continue collecting Americans’ phone records comes up for court renewal, Democratic Sens Mark Udall (CO), Ron Wyden (OR) and Martin Heinrich (NM) said that President Obama should use the powers he has now.

“We believe the way to restore Americans’ constitutional rights and their trust in our intelligence community is to immediately end the practice of vacuuming up the phone records of huge numbers of innocent Americans every day and permit the government to obtain only the phone records of people actually connected to terrorism or other nefarious activity,” they wrote.

“More comprehensive congressional action is vital, but the executive branch need not wait for Congress to end the dragnet collection of millions of Americans' phone records for a number of reasons." The Obama Administration will likely ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records for 90 days.

The Senate is currently debating legislation to end that program and require the government get a court order to search records held by phone companies.

Email privacy bill gets a boost

Tech companies and privacy groups are pushing Congress to move ahead with email privacy reform now that a majority of the House supports a bill that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing stored emails.

The Email Privacy Act -- from Reps Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and Jared Polis (D-CO) -- got its 218th cosponsor, meaning a majority of the House now supports the bill, which would reform a 1986 law that allows law enforcement officials to access, without a warrant, emails that have been stored more than 180 days.

The companies and privacy groups that have long lobbied for email privacy reform hailed the milestone. Among others, Google and Digital 4th -- a pro-ECPA reform coalition that includes the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform -- hailed the bill and called for Congressional action.

Poll: Most oppose Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger

More than half the country opposes the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, according to a new poll by Consumer Reports.

The survey found that 56 percent of the public was against the $45 billion deal, while just 11 percent supported it. Additionally, nearly three-quarters of respondents predicted it would lead to higher cable and Internet prices and would also leave consumers with fewer choices.

“Comcast and Time Warner Cable have consistently scored poorly when it comes to customer satisfaction so it’s no surprise that Americans are skeptical of this proposed deal,” Consumers Union policy counsel Delara Derakhshani said. “Most consumers expect the merger will turn things from bad to worse.”

Consumer groups back anti-‘fast lane’ bill

Consumer interest and free speech groups are getting behind Democratic legislation to require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) block agreements to speed up some users’ Internet speeds.

The Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act from Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep Doris Matsui (D-CA) “sends a clear signal” to the FCC, according to Public Knowledge vice president Chris Lewis.

“As the FCC continues to evaluate new net neutrality rules, it's important they understand that Americans want an Internet that everyone can succeed in, not just the companies with enough money to pay a toll to [Internet service providers]," he added.

The head of the American Library Association, which has previously supported the network neutrality concept of equal treatment for all online traffic, said the Democrats’ bill was "vitally important" to preserving free speech and education online. "It is critical for all to have equitable access to the Internet to support our nation’s social, cultural, educational and economic well-being," Barbara Stripling said.

Senators: No 'watered down' NSA reform

Three senators are doubling down on their call for a sweeping end to the National Security Agency’s “dragnet surveillance.” Sens Rand Paul (R-KY), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) pledged to fight against “limited” and “watered down” legislation to reform the spy agency, which they said includes the bill that passed the House in May.

“This is clearly not the meaningful reform that Americans have demanded, so we will vigorously oppose this bill in its current form and continue to push for real changes to the law,” they wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. “This firm commitment to both liberty and security is what Americans -- including the dedicated men and women who work at our nation's intelligence agencies -- deserve," they added. "We will not settle for less.”

The three senators, who have been among the most vocal critics of the NSA in the upper chamber, said that any reform bill must end a “loophole” allowing the government to snoop on some Americans’ emails without a warrant, add a special advocate to the federal court overseeing the intelligence community and clearly prevent bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Privacy groups ask President Obama not to renew NSA powers

A coalition of more than two dozen privacy and digital rights groups is asking President Barack Obama not to renew a contested National Security Agency program when its legal authority expires soon.

In a letter, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Electronic Privacy Information Center urged Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder not to seek another court order allowing the agency to collect Americans’ phone records. The contested program is “not effective,” “unconstitutional” and “has been misused,” they wrote. “It should end.”

The NSA needs approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court every 90 days in order to continue its collection of records, which track the numbers people call as well as the length and frequency of their conversations but not what they actually talk about. The current authorization runs out.