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US government appoints big tech critic Lina Khan to lead the Federal Trade Commission

Lina Khan, an antitrust pioneer and critic of big tech, was appointed as the Chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the US antitrust watchdog. Khan was first nominated by the President for Commissioner of FTC on March 22 and the Senate confirmed her on Tuesday by a vote of 69–28. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse,” Khan said in a press release.

The FTC is headed by five Commissioners who each serve seven-year terms and the President chooses one of them to act as Chair. The principal missions of the FTC are to enforce US antitrust law, promote competition, and protect consumers.

Khan’s résumé

Prior to being sworn in as FTC Chair, Khan was an associate professor of law at Columbia Law School where she taught and wrote about antitrust law and the antimonopoly tradition. Her scholarship on antitrust policy has influenced important public debates on the topic. In particular, her 2017 Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox paper, which argues that current antitrust laws are deficient and that new statutes are necessary to prevent anti-competitive behaviour from online platforms like Amazon, pushed her to prominence.

Khan’s appointment comes days after US lawmakers debuted five bipartisan draft bills that are aimed at curbing the power of tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. These bills are the product of the 16-month long investigation by the House Judiciary Committee — one that Khan played a significant role in — that found big tech companies enjoy monopoly power. One of these bills gives more financial resources to the FTC through higher merger filing fees, an important step in helping the commission fighting deep-pocketed tech giants.

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Khan has previously served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law, legal adviser to FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, and legal director at the Open Markets Institute, the press release stated.

What has the reaction been?

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has frequently called for breaking up big tech companies, said that this is “a huge opportunity to make big, structural change by reviving antitrust enforcement and fighting monopolies that threaten our economy, our society, and our democracy.” Senator Amy Klobuchar, another advocate of reforms to competition laws, also supported Khan’s appointment: “I think she is an out-of-the-box thinker, someone who will look at these things in the forward-looking way we need to look at tech today.”

“Lina Khan has pushed the academic conversation on tech, and now she has to push the agenda at the FTC,” Shane Greenstein, a professor at Harvard Business School, told Ars Technica.

However, NetChoice, a trade group whose members include large tech companies such as Amazon and Google, was “disheartened” by the appointment. “Lina Khan’s antitrust activism detracts from the Federal Trade Commission’s reputation as an impartial body that enforces the law in a nondiscriminatory fashion,” Carl Szabo, NetChoice’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. “The job of an FTC commissioner is to enforce antitrust laws as they are, not as the commissioner wishes they would be,” he added.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a technology policy think tank, said “Lina Khan’s confirmation as FTC commissioner is the result of growing bipartisan support for a populist approach to antitrust. As antitrust populism is inevitably going to become the governmental policy stance on antitrust, American consumers and innovation may soon be collateral damage. Consumers may no longer be able to benefit from large companies’ economies of scale. Innovation may slow down as less efficient and less innovative companies will be able to seek legal protection against aggressive, yet beneficial competition.”

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