Monday, December 08, 2003

Antitrust News: Restricting "Anticompetitive" Speech

With all the hysteria (some of it well founded) over the Patriot Act’s potential for curtailing civil liberties, I would hope the folks protesting that law take note of a more powerful threat to individual rights—antitrust:
A coalition of California telecommunications companies has asked the state attorney general to investigate whether some of the nation's largest phone companies violated antitrust law when they secretly discussed plans to build a war chest to lobby against government regulation.

In a letter to Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the coalition alleges that plans discussed at the October meeting "will harm competition in the state's telecommunications market and cost California consumers and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars per year.''

The letter was sent by the California Association of Competitive Telecommunications Companies (Caltel). It represents companies such as AT&T and Sprint that compete with local phone carriers, including SBC Communications and Verizon Communications. Several smaller telecom firms are also members.

The meeting of executives from SBC, BellSouth, Verizon and other companies took place last month in Washington, D.C. The executives asked their equipment suppliers to contribute to a multimillion-dollar war chest that would help "end government regulation of competition,'' says a memo that laid the groundwork for the meeting.
It should be axiomatic that lobbying the government is free speech, not illegal activity. But antitrust already is used to curtail free speech: Physicians cannot discuss HMO contracts with each other; newspapers are prosecuted for not presenting a diversity of views; media companies are punished for trying to reach too large an audience. While traditional antitrust doctrine still frowns upon prosecuting businesses for joint lobbying activities, all it takes is one or two enterprising state attorneys general to cross that threshold. Look for more than one or two to take action here. The phone company is too popular a target.

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