TIT TT The motto of Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, was “Move fast and break things”. Bruce Mehlman, former assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy, predicts that the same maxim could now guide the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer protection agency. On June 15, information emerged that Lina Khan, a leading critic of big tech companies, who the Senate had just confirmed was one of the FTCof five commissioners, would chair the agency. His appointment shows that technology has become a rare bipartisan concern in Washington and that the White House supports a more militant enforcement agenda.
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Ms Khan, who is 32, is best known for “Amazon’s antitrust paradox,” an article she wrote in 2016 while a student at Yale Law School. She argues that current interpretations of antitrust laws – which hold that if consumers get free services, no harm is done – are insufficient to cope with the power of platforms like Amazon. Tech giants could use predatory pricing and market control to hurt small businesses.
Two more recent works show just how deep Ms. Khan’s technoscepticism is. She contributed to a report last year by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, which suggested the trust needs a reboot. She argued in the Colombian Law Review for “structural separations” in large technology companies. It also goes well beyond conventional wisdom in its interpretation of the toolbox of antitrust law.
Breaking big tech is a popular topic of discussion, put forward by elected officials on both sides of the aisle and by the Open Markets Institute, a once marginal think tank where Ms Khan worked. Perhaps the White House picked Ms. Khan in part to appeal to progressives, who are likely to get less out of the administration’s infrastructure package than they hoped. Yet many of Ms Khan’s views are also popular with Conservatives, who denigrate big tech companies for their size and the stifling of free speech. “He’s a controversial figure in antitrust circles, but very popular in political circles,” says Blair Levin of New Street Research, an analyst firm.
According to Levin, the tech giants’ anti-power agenda will have four fronts. Ms Khan will work with Congress on bills (which have some bipartisan support) to curb the power of big tech companies by, for example, banning them from promoting their own services. Second, Ms Khan will work with European regulators, who have led the charge against the tech behemoths. Third, it will launch investigations. And fourth, she will litigate cases against corporations. Here she can be the most constrained, says an elder FTC commissioner: the courts tend to favor companies, especially since Donald Trump has appointed 234 judges.
The aggressiveness with which the Biden administration wants to prosecute big tech companies is expected to be revealed soon, when the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division is appointed. But Ms Khan’s pick shows that Washington’s perspective on tech companies has changed since Mr Biden was vice president. It was another age, when BlackBerrys and technology CEOs — were always popular. ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Yes They Khan”