Mar 20, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Good morning.

📺 In this week's must see "Axios on HBO", we dive into how the coronavirus pandemic is upending politics, business and global affairs. Don't miss:

  • A rare in-depth interview, where China’s ambassador to the U.S. discusses the spread of COVID-19 and so much more (clip).

Tune in Sunday 6pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Today's Login is only 1,309 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The state of tech's antitrust probes amid the pandemic

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech companies, like other U.S. institutions, have donned a mantle of public service by mobilizing to help combat the coronavirus epidemic — but they still have big antitrust targets on their back, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: Federal and state enforcers and Washington lawmakers are all investigating potential anticompetitive practices by tech giants like Google and Facebook. The pandemic has complicated the timelines of these probes, but hasn't knocked them off their tracks.

Federal Trade Commission

Where it stands: Facebook revealed last summer that the FTC was investigating it on antitrust grounds shortly after the company agreed to pay $5 billion to settle a separate privacy probe by the same agency.

  • Separately, the FTC last month announced a review of a decade of small acquisitions by Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet/Google, citing concerns that deals not big enough to trigger federal antitrust review may have led to competitive harms.

The pandemic factor: The coronavirus could delay the FTC's work.

  • An FTC spokesperson noted the commission generally seeks documents and interviews during typical investigations, but companies' priorities right now have shifted.
  • "FTC staff is fully operational but the commission will not sacrifice the scope and thoroughness of its investigations due to current limitations and timing concerns," the spokesperson said. "We are looking at each case individually and will seek to adjust timing as needed."
The Justice Department

Where it stands: Google is in the DOJ's sights, but the agency is also conducting a broader antitrust review of tech companies — bumping up against the FTC's efforts.

  • Less is known about the broader effort than the Google probe, which involves reviewing Google's online advertising practices. Lawmakers have also urged the agency to probe Google's search operation.

The pandemic factor: A DOJ spokesman declined comment on how the tech probes are affected by the coronavirus.

  • But more broadly, the antitrust division announced Tuesday that it will seek additional time to review mergers and will conduct all meetings by phone or video conference.
Capitol Hill

Where it stands: The House Judiciary Committee last year launched an investigation into competition in digital markets, recently hearing complaints from small and medium-sized companies about the power of tech giants.

The pandemic factor: Antitrust subcommittee chairman David Cicilline said in a statement Thursday that the pandemic will delay the investigation's timeline, which originally aimed to produce a report by the end of the first quarter.

  • "The subcommittee will get this investigation done the right way, and if that means taking longer than we planned, that's what we’ll do," Cicilline said in a statement.

Where it stands: Almost all U.S. state attorneys general have teamed on two separate probes of Google and Facebook, respectively led by Texas and New York.

The pandemic factor: The tech investigations continue and their priorities haven't changed due to the coronavirus, according to a spokesperson for the New York AG's office.

What's next: Antitrust investigations, once launched, tend to develop lives of their own. But the coronavirus throws big new uncertainties into the mix.

  • The pandemic's economic consequences could ultimately point antitrust enforcers in new directions toward bad actors that exploit the crisis to, for instance, rig bids on foreclosed assets.
  • Companies like Amazon and Facebook, after serving as lifelines for getting goods out to Americans and keeping them connected during quarantines, might find themselves better positioned to defend their scale.
  • "This is one of the most fascinating tweaks in antitrust history," said Barak Orbach, a law professor at the University of Arizona who focuses on antitrust. "The focus would go away from Big Tech — they are our saviors now."

Margaret has more here.

2. Twitter OKs Musk's virus misinformation

Elon Musk's Thursday tweet that "kids are essentially immune" from COVID-19 seemed a clear-cut violation of Twitter's new coronavirus misinformation policy. The platform had highlighted that exact claim as an impermissible statement, but it nonetheless decided not to remove the tweet.

Why it matters: People have already heard mixed messages about the virus, including dismissive comments from Musk himself, and misinformation can only worsen the pandemic.

What they're saying: Twitter says it concluded Musk's tweet wasn't "definitive."

"We reviewed the Tweets, and they don't violate our rules at this time. Please continue to share anything you think we should take a closer look at — we'll continue to rely on trusted partners, such as health authorities, to flag content that is harmful."
— Twitter, in a statement to Axios

Meanwhile: The medical community has been clear that kids can catch the disease and transmit it, even if they are less likely to show symptoms or become seriously ill themselves.

Flashback: Musk has been downplaying the threat of the virus for some time, tweeting on March 6 that "the coronavirus panic is dumb," and has made other comments since suggesting the virus worries were overblown.

  • He has also been in the news for offering to make ventilators in Tesla plants, but he tweeted Thursday, "We're working on ventilators, even though I think there will not be a shortage by the time we can make enough to matter."

Of note: Just as Twitter was allowing Musk's comments to stand, Facebook was webcasting CEO Mark Zuckerberg's interview with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

3. Remote work shift calls for fast footwork

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Air CEO Shane Hedge last week sent an employee to the offices of a New York nonprofit to pick up more than 20 hard drives and upload their contents to the cloud to accommodate an abrupt shift to remote work, Axios’ Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

The big picture: Despite the popularity of cloud-based work tools, all kinds of sophisticated organizations ran into technological challenges when the spread of the coronavirus suddenly forced them to send employees to work from home.

Between the lines: Many companies are set up to have some small portion of their employees working remotely at any given time, but few are prepared for all of them do so at once.

  • One popular remote work tool is the virtual private network (or VPN), which lets employees log into a company’s secure system without physically being at the office to log in. But as Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, whose company sells a cloud-based version of this tool, tells Axios, companies often don’t have these capabilities for all employees.
  • He adds that a 100-person travel agency recently called Cloudflare because it could only have five employees using a VPN at one time but needed to immediately move everyone home. Its outside IT vendor could come upgrade its equipment, but that would take two weeks, he says.
  • Other companies that are not usually set up for fully remote work have to comply with government regulations or security requirements from business partners with whom they exchange data, says Prince.

Even Silicon Valley's tech giants ran into problems. Some Apple employees couldn't access work tools from home due to security precautions around unreleased products, while Yelp had to quickly purchase laptops for employees who didn't have them for work already, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom line: Many companies will likely rethink their policies on remote work, both culturally and technologically, after this crisis.

4. Yelp giving $25M in ads to local businesses

Yelp announced a program on Friday that will provide $25 million, primarily in the form of free advertising, to small businesses that make it through the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Small businesses have been hit especially hard amid the near shutdown of public life — but so, most likely, have companies like Yelp that depend on such businesses.

Facebook, which also gets a significant amount of advertising revenue from small businesses, announced its own $100 million program earlier this week, also aimed at giving free advertising to small businesses.

What's next: Yelp said this is just a start. "We're continuing to explore ways we can do more to support local businesses, and our teams are also working with our regional and national clients to ensure we are supporting them during this period."

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • After a long week in the home office, you can take a much-needed break and spend the weekend with the same people you have been cooped up with all week.

Trading Places

  • Nope, you're pretty much stuck where you are, especially if you are in California.


  • Ex-Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski pleaded guilty to trade secret theft from Google. (Axios)
  • Despite launching new products this week, Apple still faces supply chain challenges. (Bloomberg)
  • AR glasses maker North is said to be looking for a buyer amid cash concerns. (Bloomberg)
  • YouTube is following Netflix in lowering streaming resolution in Europe to deal with coronavirus-related strain, following pressure from EU officials. (Reuters)
6. After you Login

Whew. That was a lot. How about some cats on ice.

Ina Fried