WASHINGTON – One of Lina Khan’s first projects as a new hire at an antitrust consulting firm in 2011 was to study the history of the book market, which has become increasingly dominated by Amazon. It was an early, unpublished article in a workgroup that has since become a major critic of tech giants and corporate focus.
She spent the next 10 years honing her arguments, becoming a leading figure in a growing movement calling for more aggressive policy toward Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
Now, she’s in a position to put those ideas into action – and in doing so, potentially reshaping the way the country runs its biggest companies. On Tuesday, Ms. Khan, 32, was sworn in as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission after being appointed to the position by President Biden, the youngest person in the agency’s history and the most progressive in the industry. at least one generation.
“She brought to work what I call the boldest visionary in the company’s history,” said William Kovacic, the company’s former president, of her approach to competition law. “So in that respect, she’s a transformative character.”
The question is how much will she be able to accomplish.
Her rapid rise from researcher to leader of a major federal agency underscores growing concern about the power of big tech companies – and big business in general – in Washington. . In her new job, she will command more than 1,000 investigators, lawyers and economists who are responsible for policing the American economy.
Her reach will go beyond the tech giants and antitrust legal criticism where she has made a name for herself. The FTC investigates deceptive or unfair practices by companies in addition to antitrust violations. Just this year, it challenged the merger of two cement producers in Pennsylvania, denied unsupported claims about a treatment for Covid-19 and reached an agreement with two alcohol companies on merger, which they say will affect competition for low-priced sparkling wine.
But Mrs Khan will also face her limited sharing. To create new rules or take major actions against companies, she will need to convince at least two of the four other commissioners to agree with her. She will also need to make decisions that can be favored by the courts, which tend to be against aggressive antitrust enforcement.
“If you want your vision to last,” Mr. Kovacic said, “you have to change laws and policies, and you can’t do it alone.”
Ms. Khan did not comment for this article. In a statement Tuesday, she said she looked forward to “working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse.”
Mrs. Khan quickly became famous. After a few years at the Washington consulting agency – in which she wrote, among other things, about her failure to focus on chicken farming – she went to law school at Yale. While a student there, she wrote about how the rise of Amazon illustrated the need for a more muscular approach to regulating the industry. The article made her a celebrity in the small world of antitrust law.
Ms. Khan then made a stop in Washington, which established her as a backstage presence. She worked at the FTC, for radical commissioner Rohit Chopra, and on Capitol Hill, as staff member for an extensive investigation into Silicon Valley power. As lawmakers toasted the executives of Big Tech companies, Ms. Khan sat behind them.
During that time, Ms. Khan rarely rotated between Washington’s politicians and policymakers at gala dinners and other events. Her supporters say she is minded, calm under pressure and generally lacks the tangible ego that is endemic to Washington activists.
“She’s incredibly humble,” said Sarah Miller, director of the American Economic Freedom Project and a former colleague of Ms Khan’s who advocates for her antitrust approach. “She focuses on ideas and argues rigorously.”
But as FTC chair, she will most likely need to use the bully podium as one of her most powerful tools.
She will be the face of the agency, and oversee the country’s major businesses. She will represent the agency at congressional hearings and on boards and in speeches to thousands of attorneys who are paid to represent clients before the FTC.
The agency’s leaders regularly use those public events to present their vision of antitrust and consumer protection law, bringing the case to the public and their colleagues in the field. Committee.
Mrs Khan will also have more blunt tools at her disposal. The agency may reject mergers or force companies to modify the terms of their acquisitions. Over the past decade, the agency has approved numerous deals involving tech giants, such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. It doesn’t stop Facebook from buying Instagram and WhatsApp. But Ms Khan has said she thinks regulators should look at those types of transactions more closely.
The agency can also take companies to court for breaking the law, as it sued Facebook last year alleging abuse of monopoly power. It can make rules about what constitutes fair competition.
Ms. Khan is one of five commissioners and one of three Democrats, giving her a working majority when she starts her new job. But Mr Chopra has been nominated to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and his departure will stall the committee between two Democrats and two Republicans until Mr. a new member is confirmed by the Senate.
She also faces other threats to her agenda. Whatever big move she makes will most likely have to stand the test of time in courtrooms dominated by conservative judges. This year, the Supreme Court unanimously limited the FTC’s ability to get money back from companies that cheated customers.
Critics say the job of antitrust enforcers and consumer protection is to comply with existing laws. However, her reputation was built on her criticism of the law.
Robert Bork Jr., president of the Antitrust Education Project, a group that advocates for the traditional interpretation of antitrust law, wrote on Tuesday that Ms Khan is a “renowned scholar who sums up antitrust law” monopoly into a tool that allows the government to control capitalism.” Mr Bork is the son of Robert Bork, the legal scholar who supports much of the current antitrust doctrine that Ms. Khan criticizes.
Mr Bork warned that her skepticism of an antitrust theory known as the consumer welfare standard – a competitive measure based on whether consumer prices have risen – is dangerous.
“When standards are vague and the law is unclear, the Biden administration and its regulators will have the power to arbitrarily crack down on any business,” he said.
For now, however, her supporters are elated. Representative David Cicilline, the House Democrat with whom Ms Khan worked on last year’s investigation, said he believes her appointment is a shift from decades that the body has largely accepted. Concentration of the company.
“I think we can expect a very different approach to this oligopolistic moment and the enormous market dominance of these tech companies with Lina Khan, head of the FTC,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday.