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Antitrust Advocate Lina Khan, FTC Nominee, Hailed by Music Orgs

Lina Khan
SAUL LOEB/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Lina Khan, nominee for Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 21, 2021.

The Columbia law professor has been a vocal critic of Big Tech.

Lina Khan appears poised to become the youngest-ever member of the Federal Trade Commission, following a largely warm reception from both parties at her confirmation hearing on Wednesday. If confirmed, the 32-year-old antitrust scholar and advocate will be one of three Democratic commissioners at the FTC.

Khan, who currently works as an associate professor of law at Columbia University, rose to prominence with the 2017 Yale Law Journal article "Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox," in which she argued that the old standard of determining monopolistic behaviors – i.e. looking at whether said behavior results in rising prices for consumers – is insufficient when applied to Big Tech. In the article Khan argued for the breakup of Amazon, which she accused of engaging in anti-competitive behavior --  despite its business leading to a decrease in consumer prices -- in part by squeezing out third-party competitors that depend on its selling platform.

This won't be Khan's first go-round at the FTC. Previously, she served as a legal fellow to FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra, who is awaiting confirmation after President Joe Biden floated his nomination as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in February.

Khan additionally served as majority counsel for the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee that spearheaded a 16-month investigation into the monopoly power of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. A subsequent 450-page report found that all four tech giants had engaged in anti-competitive behavior and compared them to the “oil barons and railroad tycoons” of the past.

That report, published in October of last year, was a pivotal development in the growing antitrust movement in the halls of power in Washington, where President Biden has shown a willingness to install critics of Big Tech in prominent roles. That includes Tim Wu, another Columbia University law professor whom Biden named to the National Economic Council (as special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy) in March. Like Khan, Wu has been sharply critical of tech companies including Facebook, which he has argued is a monopoly in need of being broken up.

Khan’s work on that investigation prompted some of the scant pushback from Republicans at Wednesday's confirmation hearing, where Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked whether she should recuse herself from big tech-related probes. In another exchange, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) questioned whether Khan had enough experience, yet she received a warm reception from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who said he was looking forward to working with her.

As expected, Khan was praised by Democratic members of the committee, including chairwoman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

In addition to her starry reputation among progressives advocating for holding Big Tech to account, Khan has also won fans among advocates of musicians and other independent players in the music industry. On Tuesday (April 20), nine groups, including the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), Artist Rights Alliance, Future of Music Coalition and Music Artists Coalition, signed onto an open letter urging Khan’s confirmation.

“Khan’s nomination is an encouraging step towards a competition policy regime that grasps the lived reality of creative workers and small businesses in an environment characterized by consolidated power,” the letter reads in part. It adds that Khan “has illuminated dynamics that have had profound implications for the music industry, most notably the competitive problems that arise from centralized tech platforms which effectively control how commerce can happen, including terms and compensation structure. Left unchecked and amplified by network effects, this gatekeeper power can limit the ways in which creators can connect with audiences, and can drive down the value of music, imperiling the sustainability of diverse and precious cultural traditions.”

That letter follows one sent Monday (April 19) by five Democratic members of Congress that urged the Biden administration to investigate “potentially unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices” by Live Nation-Ticketmaster, described in the letter as a monopoly that has “strangled competition in live entertainment ticketing.” In addition to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the letter was addressed to FTC acting chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, who herself has argued for more aggressive action on antitrust violations by tech companies.

Matters affecting the music industry don’t seem too far outside Khan's purview. Her background as a journalist, after all, includes this 2011 review of a concert by dream-pop outfit Beach House for HuffPost – an unlikely byline for a policy wonk, and one that burnishes her credentials as part of the so-called "hipster antitrust movement" decried by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch on the Senate floor in 2017.