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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.

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.

  • One aspect of the antitrust investigation involves reviewing whether Facebook's past acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were meant to smother potential competitive threats. The FTC cleared the deals when Facebook made them in the early 2010s.
  • FTC Chairman Joe Simons, a Trump appointee, has indicated he's willing to unwind major acquisitions by big tech platforms if the commission finds the deals were anticompetitive.
  • 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 FTC already investigated Google's search practices, but closed the inquiry in 2013 without taking enforcement action.
  • Makan Delrahim, the DOJ's antitrust division chief, recently recused himself from the Google investigation, citing previous work lobbying on a Google deal. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Barr has moved to centralize oversight of the tech antitrust review through his own appointees.

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 most important thing right now is ensuring that the American people have the resources they need to get through this outbreak," Cicilline said in a statement. "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.”
States

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.

  • Texas AG Ken Paxton has sparred with Google over outside consultants' access to documents.

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.

  • Similarly, Paxton spokesperson Kayleigh Date said, "Our investigation and the resources committed to it remain ongoing and unchanged... Staff is teleworking and operating at full capacity. We do not anticipate that this health event will affect our ability to pursue the investigation as planned."
  • Still, neither specifically said whether the pandemic will extend the timeline for wrapping the investigations.

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."

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”