And What Will Lina Khan’s Elevation Mean For Big Tech?
Lina Khan is a 32 year old lawyer and former legal academic who has risen to one of America’s most powerful lawyer roles in a rapid space of time leaving many observers variously both astounded and bemused at her stratospheric rise through the legal ranks.
Lina Khan, 32, was sworn in as chair of the Federal Trade Commission on 15 June. An associate professor at Columbia Law School, Khan became something of a celebrity lawyer when she published an article on Amazon’s anti-competitive practices in 2017.
She is the youngest Federal Trade Commission boss ever, running an organization thast has 1,100 staff and a budget of over $350 million.
But she is smart, focused and bright. And she has arrived on the public stage at a time when there is more concern than ever about the monopolistic powers of Big Tech when consumers, regulators, tax authorities and others are increasingly focused on the massive size and power of the companies reshaping the world.
Here – maybe at last – is a regulator who has the feisty power and influence – not to mention governmental authority – to reign in the Big Tech giants and level the regulatory and competitive playing field.
Born in London to Pakistani parents, Khan first had a lowly job at White & Case before working for the New America Foundation, a center-left think-tank, that allowed her to research issues relating to entrepreneurialism and competition and where she first developed an interest in US antitrust law having worked on monopolistic practices across everything from chickens and candy to metal and travel.
Her own website downplays her interests, noting – “I study antitrust law, the antimonopoly tradition, and law and political economy.”
President Biden tapped Khan to head the country’s top regulator, sending reverberating shockwaves around the country with many fearing that she would use her new powers forcefully and others simply surprised that the leftfield appointment would challenge much of the light-handed approach to regulation that had previously occurred.
The Financial Times indicated that the prevailing expectation would be that she would usher in a new era of antitrust enforcement.
Her earlier article on Amazon’s behaviour, published by the Yale Law Journal, went viral.
“You can almost think of it as the first article in what quickly became a kind of renaissance of antitrust revisionism,” says Robert Hockett, a professor of corporate law at Cornell University.
Khan expounded the philosophy that companies like Amazon – and one can imagine she might also be thinking of other Big Tech companies, have benefited from lax antitrust scrutiny for decades, a period during which low consumer prices became the dominant factor in setting competition policy.
Originating in the Chicago School of economics and promulgated by conservative jurists such as Robert Bork, the approach she takes emphasizes “consumer welfare,” which judges have interpreted to mean that anticompetitive practices can be justified if they lead to lower prices.
She maintains that the creators of America’s bedrock antitrust laws—the Sherman Act of 1890 and the Clayton Act of 1914—had broader goals than reducing prices.
Her vision for economic management envisions a different antitrust regime, similar to that which existed earlier in the 20th century, when US authorities did not hesitate to break up monopolies.
The Power of Amazon
In a profile in The Atlantic, Khan noted that evenwhen monopolies appear to benefit consumers by offering free services or low prices, Khan they can still be deeply harmful in terms of industry disruption. Among the group’s frequent targets are some of the most popular companies in America: Google, Facebook, and the one to which Khan has committed much of her published work, Amazon. She tells a comprehensive story about how these companies make Americans less free.
Amazon’s demand for discounts has made it harder to cross-subsidize this way, leading to consolidation among book publishers and reduced diversity.
Amazon has focused on growing rapidly and using predatory pricing, which has helped it evade government scrutiny since the consumer stays unharmed.
She is a vocal critic at large of big players in the tech world and has advocated for stronger anticompetitive regulation, an issue that has bipartisan support and helped lead to her lofty elevation in the current role.
As the FT reported, she helped craft the House judiciary antitrust subcommittee’s probe into Big Tech and many Republicans are wary of her. “Her views on antitrust enforcement are also wildly out of step with a prudent approach to the law,” said Mike Lee, the Utah Senator, in March. But Khan’s standing soared in Democratic circles, reaching beyond traditional Big Tech critics such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to include more mainstream politicians like Biden.