AT&T unveils a new merger that unwinds a previous failed one

Note: This post was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the weekend, a massive merger agreement was hammered out between telecom giant AT&T and entertainment company Discovery Inc., and the result was announced on Monday: if it receives the blessing of federal regulators, the telco will spin off its WarnerMedia unit — which includes HBO and other assets, including CNN — into a separate company that it and Discovery will co-own. The arrangement was described in the typical way: that it is a merger made in heaven (Discovery chief executive David Zaslav said the two “fit together like a glove”), that there are numerous synergies, and that the combination will be what the New York Times called “a juggernaut.” As Paul Farhi, Washington Post media reporter, pointed out following the news, a number of deals over the past two decades were described in similar terms, including the merger of Time Warner and AOL in 2000 in a deal that was worth about $165 billion at the time. It was later unwound, with Time Warner taking a massive writedown and spinning off AOL as a separate company.

Despite the hyperbole being used to describe the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery, a number of analysts and media industry experts believe the deal represents an admission of failure by AT&T. The company said it planned to buy WarnerMedia in 2016, and spent the next two years fighting with competition regulators for approval to do the deal. Finally, the acquisition was approved in 2018, and AT&T bought the company for $85 billion, which it heralded as the start of a new media and entertainment empire.

Tthe unwinding of the deal is “a major course correction,” Axios wrote about the new arrangement. “The deal essentially confirms shareholder fears that the company’s $85 billion merger with Time Warner three years ago was not fully baked.” Wall Street media analyst Brian Wieser told the New York Times that “AT&T didn’t know what they were buying” when they acquired the content company, and that the strategy “was probably flawed.” A WarnerMedia veteran told Vanity Fair “there’s no way this deal doesn’t make AT&T look like fools.”

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Apple’s commitment to user privacy rings hollow

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Whenever technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon come under fire for the cavalier way in which they deal with their users’ data, one thing is certain: that Apple will make as much marketing hay out of it as possible. Apple followers know by now that the company takes every opportunity to trumpet its unshakeable commitment to user privacy, and makes it clear that because its business model doesn’t rely on advertising, the way its competitors’ models do, it stands apart from them — a lone protector, concerned more about a user’s welfare than the value of their data. A case in point are the new privacy-protection rules the company just rolled out for its iOS platform, which require users to explicitly opt-in to have their data collected or shared by the apps they use.

Apple coverage from technology-centric news outlets often congratulates the company for the purity of its approach, which relies solely on selling you expensive pieces of hardware rather than engaging in targeted advertising. But there are some uncomfortable facts about Apple’s business that critics say raise questions about how deep its alleged commitment to privacy goes, and yet are rarely mentioned.

A recent feature in the New York Times took aim at one rather large blind spot in Apple’s commitment: China. While Apple has made a point of publicizing its fight with law enforcement in the US when the authorities want to get data from one of its phones — as it did in the case of a mass shooting in San Bernardino in 2016 — it doesn’t like to admit that it does the opposite in China. As the Times notes, all of the data on Apple users who live in China is kept on government-owned servers, as required by a Chinese law passed in 2016, and companies beholden to the Chinese government not only control access to the data but also the software keys required to decrypt it.

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