Muris mild on mergers

FTC nominee on record saying monopolies can be in public interest, tells McCain he will keep pressure on media marketers; looks to be shoo-in
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Under Timothy Muris, the Federal Trade Commission is likely to stay on top of entertainment companies' sales and marketing but take a less active role in reviewing mergers and acquisitions. That was the thrust of the college professor and former Justice Department official's message to the Senate Commerce Committee during his confirmation hearing last week.

The first question from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) was whether it would be a priority for Muris to make sure that movie, videogame and music producers do not market violent products to kids.

"I think the commission has done very good work in this area, and I plan to continue it," Muris told McCain. The issue of violence in the media and its effect on kids has been high on McCain's list since the Columbine shootings in Colorado two years ago. He was one of the first in Washington to call on the FTC to complete a report on whether media companies market violence to kids, which the agency completed last September amid much concern from policymakers. McCain also pushed TV networks to come up with a voluntary TV ratings code.

Muris was less sure that he would continue the agency's work on Internet privacy, an area in which the last administration's FTC, headed by Robert Pitofsky, was energetic. "It's a complex issue," Muris said. "I have no specific legislative recommendation."

But McCain was clear that he wants Muris to make Internet privacy a "priority item. More and more consumers are going to go online, and there will be more and more abuses," he said.

What may be different under Muris' administration is the level of scrutiny applied to mergers. Under President Clinton, both the Department of Justice and the FTC actively reviewed all mergers that had any antitrust ramifications, the biggest cases being Microsoft Corp., AOL Time Warner and Mobil Exxon. But Muris, 51, a professor at George Mason University Law School, is on record in academic writings that mergers and monopolies can be in the public interest as long as they aren't anticompetitive.

Since Muris left his first tour of government duty in 1988, he has remained an active player in the antitrust community, taking on consulting duties for clients in addition to teaching classes. As a result, Muris holds as much as $500,000 in technology and media stocks. Muris looks to be a shoo-in for the job, with his confirmation hearing lasting less than half an hour and most members passing on their opportunity to question him. All the panel members in attendance said they will vote for him. McCain plans to have the full committee vote on Muris' nomination this week, with Senate confirmation expected by June.

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