There are names capable of causing silence just by being pronounced. Lina M. Khan causes this effect in the dispatches of the big tech. The young lawyer is well known in the sector thanks to an article he published in 2017, with only 29 years old. Its title speaks for itself: Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox (Amazon’s antitrust paradox). Experts say that its 100 pages changed the way antitrust laws were approached in an industry as elusive for legislators as technology. Now, at 32, the Columbia University law professor is about to take one of the five seats on the board of the United States regulator, the Federal Trade Comission (FTC).
President Joe Biden announced his nomination on March 23 to fill the only vacant position on the board of this influential agency, made up of five highly regarded jurists for seven-year terms. His appointment will be effective as soon as the Senate ratifies it, something that will foreseeably not take long to happen as he has already received the approval of the House Commerce Committee. With Khan there will be three commissioners proposed by the Democratic Party, which gives him the majority on the body.
The Wall Street Journal He defined Khan this week as someone who wants to “transform antitrust policy into a bulwark against the power of big business by blocking mergers, attacking monopolistic practices and, perhaps, dismembering some of the largest companies in the country.” That is the reading that has been done in the country of his appointment.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a well-known advocate of fragmenting big tech, said something similar in February, but in a totally different tone: Since she published her famous article, the political veteran believes, Khan has been the intellectual who has led the new antitrust movement threatening Silicon Valley waters. “His work has encouraged academics, lawyers, activists and officials to think differently about the big techWarren wrote in the magazine Time.
The idea that the tremendous power amassed by companies like Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook, Microsoft or Apple must be limited in some way is gaining traction on Capitol Hill. And not just among Democrats: Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a leading figure in his party, told Khan during his appearance on the Trade Committee that he is looking forward to starting working with her.
The ‘hipster antitrust’
Born in London to Pakistani parents, she and her family moved to the United States when she was 11 years old. After graduating from Williams College, he was awarded a doctorate scholarship at Yale. It was precisely in the Yale Law Journal where he published the article that made him famous. His thesis is that the traditional foundations of antitrust law do not work in the case of technology. Until now the authorities were limited to acting when a company raised the prices of its products or services so much that the suspicion arose that it was controlling the market.
In the case of Amazon, Khan argues, the opposite is true: it artificially keeps prices significantly low, but it does so at the cost of building structural power that has earned it undue influence in various spheres of the US economy. It has become part of the infrastructure necessary to run thousands of businesses and leverages its position to compete against all of them at once. His conclusion: you have to apply antitrust measures or review the rights and obligations of the company.
Khan’s critics dubbed the movement he championed the hipster antitrust. The term intentionally refers to the youth of its advocates, including Tim Wu (48 years old), Biden’s competition advisor, or Rohit Chopra (36 years old), also an advisor to the FTC and highly critical of the power amassed by Facebook or Google. Some actually draw parallels between Khan’s promising career and that of Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They see two young people from humble origins who have reached the top on their own merits, well trained and with the necessary drive to really try to change things.
Those who know Khan do not skimp on praise for his professional prowess. “I think he is brilliant, the best possible choice for the position. Undoubtedly, she is one of the most important antitrust academics of her generation, “Frank Pasquale, an expert in artificial intelligence law and technological regulation, told EL PAÍS by email. fellow of the Information Society Project of Yale University. That is where Khan studied, who in fact quotes Professor Pasquale in the acknowledgments of the article that elevated her. “He has a very clear vision of what a fair and equitable economy should look like. He complements his work on competition with a deep knowledge of regulated industries ”, the author of The Black Box Society.
Khan will not land in the public sector without experience. Until last year, she was an advisor to Democrats on the House of Representatives subcommittee on Antitrust Practices. There he contributed to writing a report in which it is concluded that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have such great market power that it hurts consumers.
More than a gesture
Putting Khan in the FTC is a direct message from the Biden Administration to the big tech. One more. In March, the president announced the signing of Tim Wu to lead the Technology and Competition area at the National Economic Council of the White House office. Known in academia for being the father of the concept of internet neutrality, which proposes that all network traffic should be treated and billed in the same way, Wu has written against Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and advocates chopping up the company run by Mark Zuckerberg.
Founded in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson, the FTC was created to curb the big monopolies of the 19th century. Its mission is to prevent possible unfair practices, stop mergers and acquisitions of companies that cause market imbalances and promote good business practices. As an advisor to the agency, Khan will not have policymaking powers, but will have the right to vote on new regulations and measures aimed at protecting consumer rights and safeguarding free competition. Khan already said last year that, in addition to initiating antitrust proceedings, the FTC should use its authority to regulate unfair competition methods. In other words, tackling the excess power of companies like Amazon, which Washington has just sued for monopolistic practices.
“I have my doubts that he can change big things in his new position, among other things because it is not clear that the FTC is enough to regulate big technology: they have grown a lot and the powers of the regulator are limited,” he tells by phone to EL PAÍS the philosopher Carissa Véliz, who has studied extensively the way in which big tech interfere with people’s privacy.
Will you adapt to your new position? Will you know how to go from theory to practice? “Khan is a true intellectual and has proven capable of working closely with both executive and legislative power officials,” Pasquale emphasizes. “That is a very rare virtue among academics.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.