Lina Khan, the new head of antitrust facing Big Tech


Just before Halloween in 2013, Lina khan wandered through the vast selection of sweets at her local Safeway supermarket and came away with a disturbing revelation.

The 40 or so brands of candy on the shelves offered only a mirage of choice for consumers; they actually belonged to only two or three confectioners. Khan, a junior political analyst at the time, was so dismayed that she wrote about it in Time magazine. “If we want a healthier, more diverse market – and more variety in our Halloween buckets – we could start by reviving some of our antitrust laws. ”

Khan’s critique of corporate power went far beyond Big Candy. She explored concentration issues and monopoly behaviors in industries ranging from airlines to poultry and metals, drawing similar conclusions. And she began to draw her attention to the excessive influence of the Great technology, ultimately becoming one of his most vocal and prominent critics.

So when Khan, who is only 32, was this week patted by US President Joe Biden to chair the Federal Trade Commission, the main competition regulator, it sent shockwaves through Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The overriding expectation is that she will now seek to usher in a new era of antitrust law enforcement in America.

“Now she’s in control, and she’s to be feared,” says Robert Kaminski, managing director of Capital Alpha Partners, a policy research group in Washington. “She has the hammer and all she sees are nails,” he adds.

Khan was born and raised in London to Pakistani parents; the family moved to the United States when she was 11 years old. The first sign of his interest in unfair corporate behavior came early.

A Starbucks cafe across from his high school in Mamaroneck, on the northeastern suburbs of New York City, was preventing teens from sitting because they were too loud. A fury ensued, which Khan recounted in his school newspaper and which was later picked up by The New York Times.

Khan then attended Williams College, where she studied political theory. After graduating, she came to Washington, with a job at the New America Foundation, a center-left think tank, which allowed her to research entrepreneurship and competition.

“Where we used to have a lot of independent businesses, a lot of local businesses, a lot of variety,” she said. mentionned in 2012, “we only see a handful of companies that control almost every industry. “

Khan eventually landed at Yale Law School, and in January 2017, she published in the Yale Law Journal the article that would catapult her to fame: “Amazon’s antitrust paradox”.

The play has gone viral. “You can almost think of it as the first article in what quickly became something of a renaissance of antitrust revisionism,” says Robert Hockett, professor of corporate law at Cornell University.

At the heart of Khan’s philosophy is the idea that companies, including Amazon, have benefited from lax antitrust control for decades, a period in which low consumer prices have become the dominant factor in the definition of competition policy. She envisions a different antitrust regime, similar to that which existed at the beginning of the 20th century, when the American authorities did not hesitate to break the monopolies.

Amazon declined to comment on his appointment.

“What it does is simply bring antitrust and market policy back to the status quo ante, from the 1920s to the 1960s and even the 1970s,” said David Singh Grewal, professor of law at the University of California. in Berkeley.

People who know Khan – who is married to a cardiologist – describe her as unpretentious and even somewhat reserved.

“She really maintains a privacy that is private,” Grewal explains. “It’s easy to think of her as the face of the ‘millennial’, sometimes called ‘hipster’, antitrust, but she’s so different from the personality-driven social media phenomenon that grows around her.”

After graduating in law, Khan became a professor at Columbia and also worked with the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank in Washington. On Capitol Hill, she helped shape the House Antitrust Judicial Subcommittee’s investigation into Big Tech. Many Republicans remain suspicious. “His views on antitrust law enforcement are also very out of step with a cautious approach to the law,” said Mike Lee, the Utah senator, in March.

But Khan’s position has skyrocketed in Democratic circles, moving beyond mainstream Big Tech critics such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to include more mainstream politicians like Biden. Even so, while she was expected to earn a spot on the FTC as commissioner, few predicted that she would be chosen to actually run the agency.

“She really managed to skyrocket so quickly. And I would attribute that to the fact that she was incredibly visionary, ”says Kate Judge, professor at Columbia University School of Law.

Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, calls Khan the “Simone Biles” of antitrust, referring to the record-breaking American Olympic gymnast. “Demonstrate that America has this massive concentration crisis. . . played a role in making people in more traditional Democratic circles realize that a full page turn was needed. . . And that she was the obvious person to help direct it.

james.politi@ft.com; lauren.fedor@ft.com



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