Big Tech Showdown Looms As Biden Taps Top Critics Lina Khan, Tim Wu
Lina Khan, a prominent antitrust scholar who advocates for stricter regulation of Big Tech, may be about to become one of the industry's newest watchdogs.
President Biden on Monday nominated Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, an agency tasked with enforcing competition laws. She is the splashiest addition to Biden's growing roster of Big Tech critics, including fellow Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who announced earlier this month he would join the National Economic Council.
The news suggests the White House is preparing for a showdown with the tech industry at a time when federal and state regulators are already pursuing investigations and lawsuits challenging the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Biden has also called for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal shield for Internet platforms that has come under fire from both Democrats and Republicans.
Direct and plain-spoken, Khan and Wu are among the most high-profile legal progressives calling for an overhaul of laws that have allowed American tech giants to amass their dominance. Wu, for example, has criticized the concentration of corporate power as a "new Gilded Age," comparing the rise of today's Silicon Valley giants to that era's robber barons. "A new day at the FTC" was how one consumer-advocacy group responded to Khan's nomination.
"What I think is exciting about people like Tim Wu and Lina Khan is, they're disrupters," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who chairs a Senate antitrust panel, told NPR in an interview ahead of Khan's nomination. "I say we need some disruption right now, both in how we look at this in government, and how we can get more competitors going."
Khan previously was counsel to a House Judiciary Committee panel whose sweeping 16-month investigation of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google declared them monopolies and suggested "structural separations" of the companies. Democrats on the panel are now pursuing legislation, including beefing up antitrust enforcement at the FTC and Justice Department.
Khan rose to prominence as a law student, with an acclaimed 2017 Yale Law Journal article that detailed the weakness of existing antitrust rules in the face of companies such as Amazon. It elevated a new legal movement — sometimes called "hipster antitrust" — that argues U.S. law focuses so much on prices and short-term impact on consumers that it fails to stamp out anti-competitive behavior that hurts rival companies or suppliers, for example.
"I think if you're going to be a dominant marketplace, then you perhaps shouldn't be able to also sell on that marketplace, putting yourself in direct competition with all the merchants that are dependent," Khan told NPR's Planet Money in 2019.
If approved by the Senate, Khan would join the FTC's Democratic majority. She has previously worked as an aide to FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and at the left-leaning New America Foundation and its anti-monopoly spinoff, the Open Markets Institute.
As special assistant to the president at the National Economic Council, Wu will focus on technology and competition policy.
Known for coining the phrase "net neutrality" to describe the principle of open access to the Internet, Wu has emerged as one of the country's most outspoken critics of Big Tech in recent years. He shares Khan's desire to amp up antitrust enforcement and consider the impact of corporate power beyond the lens of prices, and has called for the tech giants to be broken up.
"It's the harms that come with monopolization, which is the ability of a company to get away with stuff," he told NPR in 2019. "It's less in the old-fashioned price-fixing kind of conspiracy but more about users having less choice, less places to go and, therefore, companies being able to get away with more."
Two years ago, Wu and Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder who has become a critic of the company, pitched federal and state regulators an antitrust case against Facebook, focused on its acquisitions of smaller competitors, including Instagram and WhatsApp. In December, the FTC and 48 attorneys general sued the social network, accusing it of illegally crushing competition.
Wu has served in government before. He advised the FTC and worked on competition policy at the White House under President Barack Obama, whose administration had a markedly cozier approach to the Silicon Valley darlings.
After the Justice Department and 11 states sued Google in October over its stranglehold on Internet search, Wu told NPR the case "signals that the antitrust winter is over."
Biden has also nominated a tech critic to be associate attorney general, the Justice Department's third-ranking official. Civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta has been a leading voice pressuring Facebook and other tech companies to crack down more aggressively on hate speech and misinformation.
Editor's note: Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook are among NPR's financial supporters.