This Week in Tech: Congress kicks tires on AT&T merger

The proposed $49 billion deal to combine AT&T and DirecTV gets double billing in Congress on Tuesday.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust will start things off with a hearing Tuesday morning on the merger, followed hours later by its counterpart in the Senate. Chairmen Randall Stephenson of AT&T and Michael White of DirecTV will be on hand for both hearings, as will American Cable Association top lobbyist Ross Lieberman.

The hearings are the second time Congress has turned its sights to a multibillion-dollar telecom merger in recent months. Earlier this year, the two Judiciary subpanels heard from Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives who made the case for allowing their $45 billion combination to go through.

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The specter of that merger, plus Sprint’s rumored plans to purchase T-Mobile, could turn Tuesday’s hearing into a referendum on the trend of consolidation in the telecom industry.

Final say over the mergers rests with regulators at the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission, though congressional hearings have traditionally been the most public venue for the companies to make their case. The hearings will also be fertile territory for critics of the AT&T deal, who have warned it would leave consumers with fewer options and worse service.

AT&T has argued that its current operations can’t keep up with the competing demand for TV service. DirecTV, which does not offer any Internet or phone service, would be able to take advantage of those offerings by merging with AT&T.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold its second hearing on music licensing, two weeks after lawmakers’ initial foray into the subject. The new session will include testimony from executives at Pandora, SiriusXM, the National Association of Broadcasters, The American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers, the Recording Industry Association of America and singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash on behalf of the Americana Music Association.

Lawmakers are currently debating a handful of bills to reform the current licensing system, which many say sets arbitrary red lines that aren’t in step with the new technologies that people are using to hear their favorite tunes.

On Monday morning, Reps. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) are sponsoring a “cryptoparty” on Capitol Hill to explain and demonstrate ways to beef up online security. The session will be hosted by digital rights group Access and will explore ways to encrypt communications and stay anonymous online.

Off Capitol Hill, the Federal Trade Commission will hold a workshop Monday on conditional pricing, such as requiring or encouraging customers to purchase a certain amount or a certain mix of products. The daylong event will kick off at 8:30 a.m. with opening remarks from FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen and Bill Baer, the assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith will speak at a Brookings Institution event Tuesday morning about global technology and privacy. The event, which begins at 10 a.m. and will be webcast, will include discussion about Fourth Amendment protections in the increasingly connected world of global technology.

In the afternoon, the Commerce Department will hold the next in a series of meetings aimed at bringing together tech companies and privacy advocates to create a set of privacy-enhancing voluntary guidelines for the use of facial recognition technology.

On Tuesday evening, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly will deliver the keynote address at a Phoenix Center discussion on the limits of the commission’s authority over broadband service providers.

On Wednesday, the Commerce Department will hold another meeting to improve the “notice and takedown” system under current copyright law, which allows websites and online platforms to avoid liability for users’ copyright infringement if they respond to copyright holders’ requests to take down infringing content. The meeting will take place in Cambridge, Mass., but is being webcast on the websites of the Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, delivers the keynote address on the need to reform communications policy at the Free State Foundation’s policy seminar on Wednesday. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, will follow with remarks on “a view from the FCC.”