Chair of the US Federal Trade Commission
On June 15, Lina Khan, a prominent antitrust researcher focused on Big Tech’s immense market power, was sworn in as chair of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Observers are terming Ms Khan’s appointment as a signal that the agency is likely to crack down further on the industry’s giants. President Joe Biden has appointed the 32-year-old, Pakistan-origin woman as a commissioner to lead the agency – the youngest chair in its history – which investigates antitrust violations, deceptive trade practices and data privacy lapses in Silicon Valley and throughout corporate America. One of Lina Khan’s first projects as a new staff member at an antitrust think tank in 2011 was researching the history of the market for books, which had increasingly been dominated by Amazon. It was an early, unpublished entry in a body of work that has since established her as a major critic of the tech giants and corporate concentration. She spent the next 10 years honing her arguments, becoming a leading figure in a growing movement that calls for more aggressive policing of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. Now, she is in a position to put those ideas into action — and in doing so, potentially reshape how the country regulates its biggest companies. Quiet and generally averse to the spotlight, Lina has played a critical role behind the scenes in recent years as a senior aide to the House judiciary committee on its 16-month investigation of competition among digital platforms. She also served as a counselor to the F.T.C. commissioner Rohit Chopra. She joined the faculty at Columbia Law School last year. The decision to make Ms Khan the agency’s chairwoman gives her control over its agenda, staff and proceedings. The four other commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — vote on major matters and produce statements, but the chairwoman is essentially the agency’s chief executive. All five commission members are appointed by the president for seats with seven-year terms, although agency leaders often leave along with the president who appointed them. In her new role, Ms Khan will lead efforts to regulate the kind of behaviour highlighted for years by critics of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. The role is a hugely powerful one, which protects consumers from bad business practices and companies from unfair competition. And when it comes to unfair competition, there is one sector that has been singled out by Democrats and Republicans alike: Big Tech. Worryingly for technology giants, Ms Khan has been one of their most vocal critics. Her fast ascent from researcher to leader of a large federal agency underscores the growing concerns about the power of the 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 extend far beyond the tech giants and the antitrust legal critiques where she made her name. The FTC investigates unfair or deceptive practices by companies in addition to antitrust violations. This year alone, it has challenged the merger of two cement producers in Pennsylvania, cracked down on unsupported statements about treatments for Covid-19 and reached a deal with two liquor companies over a merger it said would hurt competition for cheap sparkling wine. But Ms Khan will also confront her share of limits. In order to create new rules or take major actions against companies, she will need to persuade at least two of the four other commissioners to agree with her. She will also need to make decisions that can hold up in the courts, which have tended to push back against aggressive antitrust enforcement. The writer is an advocate High Court.