When AT&T was still a regulated monopoly, its customers (i.e. everyone) were encouraged to use AT&T’s communications services (i.e. phone calls) to “Reach Out and Touch Someone” – in the 1970’s an epitome of wholesome mid-1900’s American marketing. That pitch has taken on other contexts in 2016, but in the 1970’s Presidential candidates weren’t quite stupid enough to brag about their fulsome privates or bad manners in public.
Now the modern AT&T, which is very far removed from our parent’s AT&T, would like to buy Time-Warner. Understandably, skepticism abounds – candidates Trump and Clinton actually agree this is not a great idea. Meanwhile, consumer advocates are going nuts, on the grounds that this merger would give us less choice and higher costs. That sounds right. To a large extent, what we’ve done in the last 50 years is to swap a regulated telecommunications monopoly for a largely-unregulated oligopoly – and that oligopoly might now extend to creating content, not just distributing it.
There’s something else though: AT&T is not a benign or neutral actor in transporting information. Do you remember AT&T’s “special relationship” with the US spy agencies (particularly the NSA)? I accept the need for agencies like the NSA and what they do. However, I’m far less sanguine about collaborative commercial-government spying. No paranoid outlook is needed to find the potentially unfettered and unsupervised nature of these enterprises worrying. Is there a line between collaborating with the NSA on internet traffic and tweaking news content, all in the national interest? I’m not sure, but AT&T has proven they cannot be trusted with any possibility of making that choice.
In the US we’re encouraged to look at corporations as people – not simply in the legal sense of corporate personhood, but also from a marketing perspective. For products ranging from toilet paper to telecommunications, we’re constantly pitched on the idea that there are corporate personalities that will improve our consuming experience. Especially for commodities, I don’t see it. But it we accept corporate personhood for a moment, then we should to look at the whole person, just as we would with a neighbor, or coworker, or friend. In that light AT&T is the person that has acted behind our backs, and certainly not the person we would trust with a secret. Why should AT&T have oversight, of any kind, over the production of information? I see no reason at all.