Big Tech critic Lina Khan to lead US competition regulator

US president Joe Biden has tapped Lina Khan, a prominent critic of the power of large technology companies, to chair the Federal Trade Commission, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The decision elevates the 32-year-old Columbia University Law School professor to a powerful antitrust role in the Biden administration, as lawmakers in Congress vow to crack down on anti-competitive behaviour among the biggest US technology groups.

Khan’s appointment as chair of the FTC emerged on the same day she was confirmed by the US Senate for a seat on the five-member commission.

“Congress created the FTC to safeguard fair competition and protect consumers, workers, and honest businesses from unfair & deceptive practices. I look forward to upholding this mission with vigour and serving the American public,” she wrote in a tweet on Tuesday.

Khan is one of the most renowned American scholars to criticise large US technology companies, from Amazon to Facebook and Google, for abusing their market power, and has demanded government action to restrain them.

Khan’s 2017 paper, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”, took aim at the corporation’s growing power, particularly its role as both logistics provider and competitor to the millions of smaller businesses that use Amazon to sell goods.

It concluded that prevailing thinking on antitrust — that lower prices are net good for consumers — was outdated and did not take into account conflicting forces in the modern economy.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Khan’s appointment. The company has maintained it faces competition in all of the sectors in which it operates, suggesting it represents a small percentage of overall retail.

Khan also served as counsel to the House judiciary committee during its antitrust investigation into tech companies. The committee’s 449-page report, published last year, criticised major US tech groups and advised Congress to introduce legislation that would, among other measures, make it more difficult for the large companies to acquire up-and-coming challengers.

Biden’s decision to tap Khan to chair the FTC — which will make her one of the youngest-ever heads of a federal agency — sends a signal of his administration’s intent to take a more aggressive stance towards Big Tech.

“Five years ago the companies didn’t know who she was,” said William Kovacic, a law professor at George Washington University and a former FTC chair.

“This is the equivalent of an activist outsider suddenly becoming chairman of the board. And none of them saw it coming. None of them. Their life just got much more difficult, and much more precarious,” Kovacic said.

The US president also recently selected Tim Wu, another prominent critic of Silicon Valley at Columbia Law School, to be a special White House adviser on competition policy.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy non-profit, applauded Biden’s move to deal with “runaway corporate power”.

“Greedy and abusive corporations should be on notice that the FTC will no longer look the other way as they amass power to hurt consumers, treat competitors unfairly, and take advantage of workers,” said Alex Harman, competition policy advocate for Public Citizen.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts who has called for a break-up of Big Tech groups, cheered the appointment, tweeted that Khan “brings deep knowledge and expertise to this role and will be a fearless champion for consumers”.

The Information, Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington-based think-tank backed by the tech industry, said the move reflected a growing “populist” antitrust agenda that it argued would harm consumers and hobble successful American companies.

“Consumers may no longer be able to benefit from large companies’ economies of scale. Innovation may experience a slowdown as less efficient and less innovative companies will be able to seek legal protection against aggressive, yet beneficial competition,” said Aurelien Portuese, ITIF’s director of antitrust and innovation policy.

As markets closed on Tuesday, the share prices of Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet and Apple were mostly unchanged by the news.

Facebook and Alphabet declined to comment on Khan’s appointment. Apple did not immediately return a request for comment.

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