Inside the story: Lina Khan
My reporter's notebook on the 32-year-old FTC chair; plus, Facebook's rebranding, GSA's experimenting, and a new book from Marietje Schaake.
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Reporter’s notebook: Lina Khan
Back in mid-June, President Joe Biden surprised just about everyone in Washington, Silicon Valley, and beyond when he named as the next chair of the Federal Trade Commission the person who was perhaps the tech industry’s foremost critic, 32-year-old lawyer and academic Lina Khan.
Among those surprised? Khan herself.
“Pretty startled” is how she described herself, laughing, in an interview I did with her at the FTC’s D.C. headquarters earlier this month. That interview formed the basis of a new profile of Khan I have out this week in New York Magazine.
The ambition of that piece is to introduce a wide readership to Khan and the debate she’s now at the center of at the FTC, where she’s newly in charge of about 1,100 employees and a $384 million budget — and answerable to a Congress that’s developed strong opinions of what the FTC should and shouldn’t be doing, including when it comes to the agency’s case that could separate Facebook (I mean, Meta) into constituent parts.
The necessities of print dictated a tight 2,100 words on that story, which means there were some details likely of interest to you all that were left in my reporter’s notebook. They help paint a fuller picture of Khan, the FTC right now, and the considerable opposition she’s facing. Here’s some of those details:
College and cows | Khan chose to do her undergrad at Williams College, a Massachusetts liberal arts school just south of the Vermont border. I found it a slightly less than obvious choice; after moving to the U.S. from London, she grew up right outside New York City, and at least shortly after college had, according to those who knew her then, a strong interest in business. Part of the appeal? “Cows,” said Khan. She liked the fact that the school was a small community with a strong inward-looking focus on academic rigor: “You’re kind of just in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the mountains, with cows.”
The book path not taken | After college, Khan was hired on by the Open Markets program, part of the think tank New America. She spent a few years there, and while Barry Lynn, who headed the program, encouraged her to move on to broaden her experience, he first asked if she’d stick around co-author a book called “Discrimination Nation” on differential pricing (that is, requiring different audiences to pay different amounts for the same products or services). Khan, who was also weighing taking a reporting job at the Wall Street Journal, decided to skip book writing and go to Yale Law School instead.
The importance of Warren | Back in 2016, when Khan was still in law school, she was part of a consequential dinner meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was looking to expand her post-2008 economic-crisis critique from financial institutions to other industries. (The meeting has been mentioned in HuffPost.) Sitting in her Senate offices, Warren queried Khan and the small handful of others present — including eventual Justice Department antitrust chief nominee Jonathan Kanter —on topics like how the network effects enjoyed by tech companies affect competition and what the relevant federal agencies were doing. Warren left impressed with Khan and became a strong backer. The senator would later build on that meeting in delivering a speech on economic concentration as a threat to liberty — at a time when she was on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s VP short list — that would help spark new interest in antitrust thinking on the left.
The New America breakup | After graduating law school, Khan was extended an offer to return to Open Markets as legal director. But the day her offer letter became official happened to be the same day it became clear that Open Markets was no longer welcome at New America after running into conflict with Google in the form of then-executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Khan’s job offer was put on hold. Soon, Open Markets would spin-out as a standalone organization and Khan would join back up.
The Google factor | At least one person close to Open Markets’ departure from New America says that that situation — and the considerable public attention that followed — helped propel Khan’s career, in part because it helped validate the idea that Silicon Valley’s big companies had so much power in Washington that they could warp public debate. “Google launched the anti-monopoly movement, in some sense,” Sarah Miller, who once worked at Open Markets and is now the executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, told me. “I do not think Lina Khan would be sitting at the helm of the FTC today if Google hadn’t overplayed their hand.”
Tough choices loom | Some affiliated with the tech industry have their eyes trained on Khan having to soon make calls on difficult cases, like Amazon’s proposed acquisition of MGM Studios for $8.45 million — a potentially particularly fraught deal because Khan made her name early on with a law journal paper that argued that Amazon poses a significant threat to competition in the United States. Let that deal go through, and it could rattle the anti-monopoly base. Adam Kovacevich, who is the CEO of the group Chamber of Progress (which includes Amazon among its members), put it this way in an interview: “Is it possible to both lead a movement and an agency at the same time? Can you be both Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer?”
One takeaway from talking to scores of people in Khan’s orbit — allies, critics, those who aren’t sure yet, and curious observers — is that no one feels like they can entirely predict how her tenure’s going to go, and they’re all very, very eager to see what happens next.
Slow Build’s readers are a very smart bunch. We’d love to hear your thoughts, so go ahead —click on the comment bubble above and leave them.
Facebook’s rebranding: It’s possible you’ve heard that Facebook is rebranding its parent company as “Meta,” with what most of us think of as Facebook — that is, the social-networking app — keeping the old name. Of course, it does little to nothing to reduce Facebook’s political woes, but Slow Build’s hot take: Google’s restructuring into Alphabet back in 2015 and the resulting changes to company leadership did confuse lawmakers and regulators, at least for a time. The difference, though, is that those folks were only moderately motivated to do any sort of real oversight of Google. When it comes to Facebook/Meta, they remain very motivated. (An aside: Facebook’s new logo looks kinda like the rubber band that bundles broccoli, no?)
Schaake book watch: Marietje Schaake, a former member of the EU Parliament who is now international policy director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center is coming out with a new book, called “Democracy.com: How to Stop Tech Companies from Ruling Our Digital Lives.” It builds on Schaake’s long-time argument that tech companies are assuming the role of governments without also shouldering the responsibilities.
Newsletter watch: “Campaigner”: The progressive candidate/staffer training group Arena and FWIW, the media group affiliated with the non-profit ACRONYM (it’s not you — this is confusing) have joined up on a new newsletter that might be of interest. Called Campaigner, it describes its mission thusly: “exploring the tactics that drive winning political campaigns and highlighting the players pushing the buttons.”
Federal experimentation: The General Services Administration, a.k.a. GSA, is soliciting projects for 10x, its program that tests out technology ideas from civil servants that could improve Americans’ lives, then puts money behind scaling the ones that seem to work. The themes include "reimagining public engagement" and "equity in delivery."
“A Very Big Little Country,” Katherine LaGrave, AFAR — “‘Prior to the internet, micronations were generally claims on actual territories by people who had either lived on or had been to these territories, or who actually had some kind of aspiration for these territories to have micronational status,’ [micronation researcher Philip] Hayward says. ‘The chief characteristic about the internet era is that many of them [micronations] had no connection or affiliation with actual place claims.’”