Lina Khan, the brand new antitrust chief taking up Huge Tech
Just before Halloween in 2013, Lina Khan was strolling through the huge selection of candy at her local Safeway supermarket and got away with a disturbing revelation.
The around 40 brands of candy on the shelves only provided an illusion of consumer choice; they really only belonged to two or three pastry chefs. Khan, then a junior policy analyst, was so upset 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 reviving some of our antitrust laws.”
Khan’s criticism of corporate power goes far beyond Big Candy. She has examined concentration issues and monopoly behavior in sectors ranging from airlines to poultry and metals and reached similar conclusions. And she began to turn her attention to Big Tech’s undue market influence, eventually becoming one of its most vocal and prominent critics.
When Khan, only 32 years old, was appointed chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, the top competition regulator, this week by President Joe Biden, it sent shock waves across Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The prevailing expectation is that it will now attempt to usher in a new era of antitrust enforcement in America.
“Now she’s in charge, and she’s to be feared,” says Robert Kaminski, executive director of Capital Alpha Partners, a policy research group in Washington. “She has the hammer and only sees nails,” he adds.
Khan was born and raised in London to Pakistani parents; When she was 11, the family moved to the United States. The first indication of their interest in unfair corporate behavior came early.
A Starbucks cafe across from their high school in Mamaroneck, a northeastern suburb of New York City, prevented teenagers from sitting down because they were too noisy. An uproar ensued, which Khan recorded in her school newspaper and which was later picked up by the New York Times.
Khan attended Williams College, where she studied political theory. After graduation, she moved to Washington where she accepted a position with the New America Foundation, a center-left think tank that enabled her to research entrepreneurship and competition.
“Where we used to have a lot of independent companies, a lot of local companies, a lot of variety,” she said in 2012, “we now actually only see a handful of companies that control almost every industry.”
Khan eventually landed at Yale Law School and in January 2017 published the article in the Yale Law Journal that would catapult her to fame: “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”.
The piece went viral. “You can almost think of it as the first article in some kind of renaissance for 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 scrutiny for decades, a time when low consumer prices became the dominant factor in determining competition policy. She envisions a different antitrust regime, similar to that at the beginning of the 20th century when the US authorities did not hesitate to break up monopolies.
Amazon did not want to comment on their appointment.
“What it does is really just bring antitrust and market policy back to the status quo ante of the 20s to 60s, even the 70s,” says David Singh Grewal, law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
People who know Khan – who is married to a cardiologist – describe her as humble and even a little reluctant.
“She really has a private life that is private,” says Grewal. “It’s easy to think of her as the face of the ‘millennial’, sometimes referred to as the ‘hipster’, but she’s so different from the personality-driven social media phenomenon that is growing 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 draft the House of Representatives Antitrust Subcommittee investigation into Big Tech. Many Republicans are still suspicious. “Your anti-trust enforcement views are also completely incompatible with prudent use of the law,” Utah senator Mike Lee said in March.
But Khan’s reputation soared in democratic circles, reaching beyond traditional big-tech critics like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to include more mainstream politicians like Biden. Although she was expected to get a spot on the FTC as a commissioner, few predicted that she would be selected to actually head the agency.
“She really managed to fly high that fast. And I would put it down to being just incredibly visionary, ”said Kate Judge, professor at Columbia University’s law school.
Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, calls Khan the “Simone Biles” of antitrust law, referring to the record-breaking US Olympic gymnast. “Demonstrate that America is having this massive concentration crisis. . . helped make it clear to people in traditional democratic circles that a full page turning was necessary. . . And that she was the obvious one to lead it. “