Big tech has a new threat to its market dominance: FTC chairwoman Lina Khan.
President Joe Biden appointed Khan chair of the Federal Trade Commission on June 15, putting a prominent proponent of breaking up monopolies in charge of the competition regulator.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse,” Khan said in a statement.
Progressives have heralded the appointment as an opportunity to rein in the increasing power of Silicon Valley, which will be keeping a close eye on her next moves. Here are five things you should know about the legal wunderkind.
1. She rose to prominence after writing a critique of Amazon
Khan burst onto the antitrust scene after writing”Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” a paper published while she was still a student at Yale Law School. The New York Times described it as “reframing decades of monopoly law.”
Khan argued that the current American antitrust focus on keeping prices down for consumers is an outdated approach in the era of big tech platforms, which use predatory pricing to squeeze out smaller competitors and exploit their existing dominance to enter new markets. Instead, she proposed evaluating their impact in a more holistic way:
Applying this idea involves, for example, assessing whether a company’s structure creates certain anticompetitive conflicts of interest; whether it can cross-leverage market advantages across distinct lines of business; and whether the structure of the market incentivizes and permits predatory conduct.
Just five years year after publishing the paper, Khan has the chance to turn her theories into regulatory practice
2. She’s also got history with Google
During a stint at the New America Foundation, a center-left think tank, Khan helped edit a statement from her team that described Google’s market power as “one of the most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today.”
The message caught the eye of Eric Schmidt, Google’s then-executive chairman, who together with Google had invested millions in the foundation. He voiced his displeasure to the group’s president, the New York Times reported.
Two months later, Khan’s team separated from the think tank. But the episode hasn’t prevented her from continuing to publicly lambaste Google.
She’s slated the company for illegally reneging on commitments, excluding rivals, and monopolizing markets.
“Across markets, Google has consistently promised an open ecosystem only to close it off,” she tweeted in December 2020.
Khan also advised the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust in its investigation into Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. According to CNBC, she specifically worked on the section about Google, which has since been sued on antitrust grounds in the US.
3. She’s been called an “antitrust hipster”
Khan has become a figurehead of an antitrust movement known as the New Brandeis School, which asserts that competition laws should focus on more than just consumer pricing.
Critics have denigrated their approach as “antitrust hipsterism.”
Antitrust hipsterism. Everything old is cool again.
— Kostya Medvedovsky (@kmedved) June 19, 2017
Antitrust lawyer Konstantin Medvedovsky, who coined the term, called Khan’s paper “the face of the movement.”
The phrase has also been used by former Federal Trade Commissioner Joshua Wright and ex-Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, as a way to accuse the New Brandeis theory of lacking evidence.
But Khan’s appointment suggests they’re now winning the antitrust argument.
4. Elizabeth Warren loves her
In 2016, Khan and Barry Lynn, who headed her team at The New American Foundation, met Senator Elizabeth Warren for dinner. According to The New Yorker, the duo “suggested several anti-monopoly tools, including breaking up some of these giant companies.”
Warren later called Khan “the leading intellectual force in the modern antitrust movement.”
The senator described her appointment at the FTC as “tremendous news.”
“With Chair Khan at the helm, we have a huge opportunity to make big, structural change by reviving antitrust enforcement and fighting monopolies that threaten our economy, our society, and our democracy,” she tweeted.
With Chair Khan at the helm, we have a huge opportunity to make big, structural change by reviving antitrust enforcement and fighting monopolies that threaten our economy, our society, and our democracy.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 15, 2021
Khan’s confirmation signaled growing bipartisan support for her ideas, as she also received support from several Republicans. However, not everyone in the GOP is a fan.
5. She’s only 32
At 32, Khan is the youngest ever chair of the FTC. The London-born scholar has only been out of law school for four years, and critics argue that she’s not ready for the role.
They include Republican senator Mike Lee, who said she “lacks the experience necessary” for the position. Lee also called her ideas “wildly out of step with a prudent approach to the law.”
However, her experience belies her age. Khan is already an associate professor at Columbia Law School, has worked for the FTC since 2018, and served as counsel to the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial, and administrative law.
Her relative youth could also be an asset. I expect the 32-year-old has a greater understanding of tech than the octogenarian policymakers who don’t understand how online platforms make their money.