Judge orders U.S. government to seek consent to give data to AT&T, Time Warner

The AT&T logo is pictured during the Forbes Forum 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The judge hearing the Justice Department’s lawsuit to stop AT&T from buying Time Warner ordered the department on Monday to seek permission to give the two companies access to rivals’ pricing data.

Judge Richard Leon, living up to a pledge made during a hearing last week, ordered the Justice Department, which has the data, to ask the companies that gave it to the government for consent to pass it on to AT&T and Time Warner’s legal team.

The Justice Department sued in November to stop AT&T, the No. 2 U.S. wireless company, from buying Time Warner for $85 billion because of concerns that it could raise prices for rivals and pay-TV subscribers as well as hamper the development of online video. Trial is set for March 19.

Fights over data are common during antitrust trials since companies that are subpoenaed frequently fear that their rivals’ executives will gain access to sensitive internal data that put them at a competitive disadvantage.

AT&T is expected to use the data to show that previous mergers did not lead to price increases for content as a way to bolster its argument that this deal also will not lead to higher prices when cable companies seek to buy content.

AT&T and Time Warner are seeking data from five programmers, including Walt Disney Co, Twenty-First Century Fox, Viacom Inc, Discovery Communications Inc and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc, according to the judge’s order.

They are also seeking it from distributors Comcast Corp, Charter Communications Inc, Cox Communications Inc and Altice USA Inc, the judge’s order said.

Leon had given access to confidential information to the court, Justice Department lawyers and staff, service providers and AT&T and Time Warner’s outside counsel.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Susan Thomas