The Axios tech team had its all-day retreat yesterday, so thanks to everyone in tech who avoided making any big news in tech. Oh wait, that was, like, two of you? To everyone else, thanks for making me multitask for eight hours straight yesterday.
Meanwhile, today's Login is 1,475 words, a 5-minute read.
Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images
Just hours after the giant T-Mobile-Sprint deal moved closer to reality, the Federal Trade Commission announced it plans to look at a decades' worth of smaller acquisitions by tech's big five firms, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and I report.
Why it matters: Tech giants have amassed their empires in part by buying up promising startups without any regulatory resistance, a method that's now under the microscope — though the T-Mobile/Sprint victory underscores just how hard it is for regulators to prevail on even conventional antitrust cases.
Driving the news:
While antitrust regulators can block transactions of any size, they typically focus their attention (and data-gathering policies) on larger deals.
What they're saying: "The big tech companies have made literally hundreds of acquisitions that were too small to be reported to the agencies for pre-merger review. Most were almost certainly benign. But there are concerns that some or maybe many have been anticompetitive — that they have been about nipping a potential competitive threat in the bud instead of allowing it to flourish and challenge the acquiring firm in some way," said Doug Melamed, Stanford Law professor and former DOJ antitrust official
The big picture: There's already a high bar to proving in court that a merger will or has hurt competition, as Tuesday's ruling reflects. The FTC has a tall order ahead of it if it looks to build an enforcement case around the competition that might have been. The launch of the inquiry is just the latest sign that there's increasing anxiety over the power of big technology companies, but little clear indication of what should be done and how.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
In the second big juxtaposition of the day, U.S. officials went to the Wall Street Journal claiming Huawei has the ability to spy on wireless networks through backdoors in its equipment. On the same day, the Washington Post disclosed details of a decades-long CIA spying operation run through a front company that sold commercial encryption services.
Why it matters: Attorney General William Barr has called for tech companies to give law enforcement agencies backdoors so they can access encrypted communications — the same practice the U.S. decries when it comes to Huawei and China.
Driving the news:
Huawei, for its part, says the charges leveled by U.S. officials are "baseless."
The big picture: There's a huge debate over encryption and very little clear middle ground. Most security experts say the backdoors you put in for the "good guys" will invariably be exploited by the "bad guys" — and not everyone even agrees who the good guys are. One person's lawful order is another person's authoritarian dictate.
Governments tend to be mixed, with domestic law enforcement prone to wanting a backdoor and national security agencies frequently favoring strong encryption.
Our thought bubble: You either have strong encryption or you have backdoors. And apparently, even if you think you have strong encryption, you might still be sharing your secrets with the CIA.
Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images
More large companies are skipping Mobile World Congress amid concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. Among the latest to pull out are AT&T, BT, Cisco, Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Intel, Nokia and Vodafone, who join Ericsson, Sony and LG among large companies pulling out of the annual Barcelona trade show.
Why it matters: MWC is the traditional gathering place of mobile companies from all over the world — and that's the concern.
The board of the GSMA, the trade group that puts on Mobile World Congress, plans to meet Friday to discuss the impact of all of the departures, according to Bloomberg.
The group has already implemented a number of new safety precautions, including rules on who from China can attend.
What they're saying:
Our thought bubble: Once Ericsson — one of the largest exhibitors — announced plans to withdraw, it gave everyone else cover to do so as well.
Photo: Courtesy of Samsung
In launching the Galaxy S20 line on Tuesday, Samsung zoomed in on the improved picture-taking abilities of its latest flagship smartphones.
Why it matters: The move is an acknowledgment that the camera is the biggest thing that helps spur consumers to buy a new smartphone.
The camera enhancements are a mix of software and hardware changes.
Details: The S20 will come in three versions, all of which include 5G capabilities in the U.S.
All models will be available for pre-order on Feb. 21 and arrive in stores March 6.
Meanwhile: The company also detailed a new foldable device, dubbed the Galaxy Z Flip, which it teased in an Oscars commercial on Sunday. The clamshell device will cost around $1,400 and go on sale Feb. 14.
After a long day, just what I needed was Margaret Atwood riding an electric scooter. Hope you enjoy it too.