The telecom hills are alive with the sound of mergers. Last month, a judge ruled the $85 billion offer by AT&T to acquire Time Warner is legal. Last year, the United States Department of Justice sued to block the deal, and the government will appeal this decision.
Time Warner (AT&T would change the name to Warner Media) owns HBO, CNN and Warner Brothers. Fees for the various banks and other advisers could total hundreds of millions of dollars.
Separately, on July 19 Comcast dropped efforts to purchase 21st Century Fox, clearing the way for Disney to acquire this unit of the Fox Empire. Disney will be much stronger in competition with media giant Netflix.
In early 2014, Comcast agreed to purchase Time Warner for $45 billion. However, the Federal Government vetoed the deal, arguing Comcast would acquire a dangerous too-dominant role in the Internet. During that time, AT&T successfully purchased DirecTV.
Similar consolidation characterizes cell phone markets.
Apple and Google largely define the global mobile operating system market. The former pioneered the user-friendly desktop computer. Co-founder Steve Jobs eventually left in a power struggle, only to return and engineer a brilliant turnaround centered on the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Devices have grown smaller even as the universe of information expands.
As in the past, telephones, computers and good old TVs are helping to democratize information. Two continuous characteristics are complex interplay between technology and society, and government oversight.
Information transmission now involves vast rapid change, but at the start, telephone and computer companies enjoyed much more solid, structured commercial environments. Dominant corporations effectively controlled largely stable, predictable markets, in contrast to today.
Historically, concentrated corporate power clearly threatened the public interest. John D. Rockefeller brilliantly built the Standard Oil Corporation into a powerful foundation of the American industrial economy, but monopoly of oil and kerosene production was also dangerous. Standard Oil could literally dominate the U.S. economy and shutdown the government, including the military.
Antitrust prosecution broke up Standard Oil in 1911. Investigative journalist Ida M. Tarbell was instrumental in this result, thanks to her book “The History of the Standard Oil Company.”
Computer and communications companies likewise face prosecution, though none has the power of Standard Oil. The Feds had success pursuing AT&T with an antitrust suit begun in 1974. In 1984, the corporation was broken up. Southwestern Bell eventually purchased surviving long-distance carrier AT&T, re-adopted the name, and became a principal player over time.
In 1894, Tarbell moved back to the U.S. after several years in Paris. Rather than rejoin family in Titusville, Pennsylvania, she settled in New York City, a courageous move then for a single woman.
However, as Steve Weinberg points out in “Taking on the Trust,” his book about her career, electricity was already radically transforming life in the great metropolis. Electric trains and lights permitted relatively safe, comfortable travel. Over time, technology made life easier. Consumers benefited from growing freedom of movement.
Investigator Tarbell made excellent use of the new telephone.
Today, we have myriad information sources — but less privacy.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.