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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Justice Department's announcement Tuesday that it will probe the market power of online platforms is the latest sign of deepening trouble in Washington for major tech companies.

Why it matters: Antitrust action is one of the most significant steps a government can take to rein in a company — and Justice's announcement is the kind that can kick off years-long probes.

Details:

  • DOJ said it was looking at concerns about major online platforms and how they could be "engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers."
  • Specifically, it indicated it would look at "search, social media, and some retail services online" — wording that, while non-specific, pointed to Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Flashback: The first indication that DOJ under Attorney General Bill Barr could pursue antitrust investigations against major Silicon Valley companies came earlier this year, when the agency split jurisdiction over competition concerns about tech companies with the Federal Trade Commission.

  • Justice took Google and Apple, the FTC took Facebook and Amazon.
  • DOJ spokesperson Alexei Woltornist declined to comment on how Tuesday's announcement fit into that arrangement.

The big picture: Support for more aggressive antitrust enforcement has grown on the left in recent years, culminating in presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren's proposal to break up Big Tech.

  • President Trump has also been extremely critical of major tech companies over alleged — and unsubstantiated — censorship of conservative voices.
  • The House Judiciary Committee is conducting its own investigation of major tech firms with its chairman, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), saying Tuesday that Facebook, Amazon and Google hadn't adequately answered the panel's questions during a recent hearing.
  • Lawmakers are also looking at ways to regulate major platforms over concerns about invasions of privacy, disinformation and criminal activity on the internet.

An antitrust prosecution would be a first for this generation of tech companies, which have benefited from enforcers' practice of identifying market dominance by looking for places where it results in higher consumer prices. Google and Facebook give away most of their services for free.

The bottom line: These are the sorts of investigations that, if they pick up steam, can humble corporate giants and have major implications for the economy.

  • The last major antitrust case in the sector was Justice's pursuit of Microsoft beginning in the late '90s.
  • Some say the case cowed Microsoft, giving Google the space to be successful and, ultimately, grow into a giant of its own.

Go deeper: For tech, antitrust is a fatal distraction

Go deeper

FBI director: Jan. 6 Capitol attack was domestic terrorism

The FBI views the Jan. 6 Capitol siege as an act of domestic terrorism, director Christopher Wray testified in his opening statement Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Why it matters: The FBI's designation of the attack as domestic terrorism puts the perpetrators "on the same level with ISIS and homegrown violent extremists," Wray said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich to introduce plan for Puerto Rico statehood

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) at a hearing on Feb. 23, 2021 in Washington, D.C. PHOTO: Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) announced Tuesday they would introduce legislation to start the motions for Puerto Rico statehood.

Why it matters: More than 52% of Puerto Ricans voted last November in favor of statehood, three years after Hurricane Maria struck the island and caused one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. It exposed the island's vulnerable position as a U.S. territory and its lack of resources to battle poverty.

J&J and Merck to partner for COVID vaccine production to boost supply

Empty vials that contained a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the COVID-19. Photo: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden will announce Tuesday that pharmaceutical giant Merck will help Johnson & Johnson manufacture its newly authorized coronavirus vaccine to boost supply, a senior administration official tells Axios.

The big picture: The development has the potential to vastly increase supply, possibly doubling what the J&J could make on its own, the official said. The company has run into challenges while trying to expand its vaccine production to a global scale.