FTC Nominee Lina Khan Fires a Warning Shot at Big Tech - "Potential Criminal Activity" - and Senators from Both Parties Love It

The Senate Commerce Committee holds a nominating hearing for the most important scholar on antitrust since Robert Bork. She warns of potential criminal activity in the adtech world.

Hi,

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Today was Lina Khan’s nominating hearing for her slot as a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, which is one of America’s antitrust enforcement agencies. Khan is known as a rock star of antitrust, and for good reason. She helped lead the 16-month investigation of big tech firms by the House Antitrust Subcommittee, and before that she wrote one of the most important law review articles in recent history, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.

That piece, as Senator Amy Klobuchar noted while introducing Khan, went viral, and helped reframe how we understand antitrust and competition law. To have Khan as a nominee for an enforcement slot is therefore quite significant. Her testimony today was crisp and effective, with none of the filler-style chatter you hear from most bureaucrats (words like ‘stakeholder’ and ‘engagement’ come to mind). She was on a panel with other nominees for other agencies, like Bill Nelson to be the head of NASA. And she was so impressive that reporters covering other beats took notice.

There were a couple of notable takeaways.

The most important thing to know about Lina Khan is that she is at heart an investigative journalist. When she was 15, she did a story on Starbucks for her school newspaper, and it got picked up by the New York Times. Before she became a lawyer, she did investigations on everything from the rise of big chocolate to airlines to poultry to banks to Monsanto’s appetite for data.

Her law review piece on Amazon came out of research she did on the economy as a news gatherer, and the investigation of big tech for the Antitrust Subcommittee was basically just high-quality journalism. Khan has what is necessary in a great enforcer and regulator, which is a sense of curiosity about how the world works. She starts with empirical reality, asking what’s happening in business and how it is shaped by the law.

Khan will be just one of five votes, so she won’t be able to run the commission herself. But her nomination is a huge deal. The FTC used to be an afterthought agency, a place to stack cronies with a nice cushy job flying off to Europe to attend privacy conferences, with the need to occasionally vote to permit a massive mega-merger. If nothing else, Khan’s nomination shows that is no longer the case.


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cheers,

Matt Stoller