Biden names Lina Khan, a big-tech critic, as FTC chair
By David McCabe and Cecilia Kang
President Joe Biden named Lina Khan, a prominent critic of Big Tech, as the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, the White House said Tuesday, a signal that the agency is likely to crack down further on the industry’s giants.
Earlier in the day, the Senate voted across party lines, 69-28, to confirm Khan as a commissioner. The president may name any commissioner to lead the agency, which investigates antitrust violations, deceptive trade practices and data privacy lapses in Silicon Valley and throughout corporate America.
Khan, 32, was sworn in Tuesday, making her the youngest chair in the FTC’s history. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse,” she said in a statement.
In her new role, Khan will lead efforts to regulate the kind of behavior highlighted for years by critics of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. She told a Senate committee in April that she was worried about the way tech companies could use their power to dominate new markets. The agency is investigating Amazon, of which Khan has been highly critical, and filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook last year.
Her appointment was a victory for progressive activists who want Biden to take a hard line against big companies. He also gave a White House job to Tim Wu, a law professor who has criticized the power of the tech giants. The president has yet to appoint someone to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, another top regulator of the industry.
The decision to make Khan the agency’s chair gives her control over its agenda, staff and proceedings. The four other commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — vote on major matters and produce statements, but the chair is essentially the agency’s CEO. All five commission members are appointed by the president for seats with seven-year terms, although agency leaders often leave along with the president who appointed them. (The term for Khan’s seat expires in September 2024.)
Khan signaled at her April confirmation hearing that she intends to carry her concerns about the tech giants into her role at the agency. She told lawmakers she saw a “whole range of potential risks” around the tech companies.
“One that comes up across the board is that the ability to dominate one market gives companies, in some instances, the ability to expand into adjacent markets,” she said. She also said regulators should apply more scrutiny to mergers involving the companies.
Amazon, Google and Facebook declined to comment on Biden’s unexpected decision. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden’s decision caps an unusually rapid ascent for Khan. She was born in London to Pakistani parents who emigrated to the United States when she was 11. She first rose to prominence while a law student at Yale, where she wrote a paper laying out how modern antitrust laws had failed to check the power of Amazon. The paper attracted notice from policymakers, other lawyers and the press.
Quiet and generally averse to the spotlight, she has played a critical role behind the scenes in recent years as a senior aide to the House judiciary committee on its 16-month investigation of competition among digital platforms. She also served as a counselor to FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra. She joined the faculty at Columbia Law School this past year.
Khan succeeds Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, a former Democratic Senate staff member who was named the agency’s acting chair in January. Slaughter’s office said she would remain at the agency as a commissioner.
“If she chose to be a doctor, she would have been a star doctor. If she’d chosen to go to Wall Street, she’d be running a very powerful fund,” said Barry Lynn, the director of the Open Markets Institute, a think tank, and Khan’s former boss. “I am thrilled that she chose this path because she has the ability to transform America’s political economy.”
Her appointment was also hailed by many Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chair of a Senate subcommittee overseeing antitrust and a regular critic of the tech industry, said Khan’s “deep understanding of competition policy will be vital as we strengthen antitrust enforcement.”
Klobuchar noted Khan’s new role in an afternoon hearing on competition, before any announcement from the White House.
“We need all hands on deck as we take on some of the biggest monopolies in the world,” she said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said, “With Chair Khan at the helm, we have a huge opportunity to make big, structural change by reviving antitrust enforcement and fighting monopolies that threaten our economy, our society and our democracy.”
Republican lawmakers were largely silent about Khan’s becoming chair. Several of them who work on antitrust, like Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, declined to comment.
Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, a tech industry lobbying group, said after the Senate vote that Khan would make the independent agency more political.
“Khan has a strong career in persuading the American left of her proposed reforms to antitrust law,” Szabo said in a statement, “but the job of an FTC commissioner is to enforce antitrust laws as they are, not as the commissioner wishes they would be.”
Adam Kovacevich, CEO of Chamber of Progress, another tech industry group, said: “The key question ahead is whether the FTC focuses on helping consumers or on redesigning tech products and services that most people are pretty happy with.”