with Aaron Schaffer

Lina Khan’s rise to chair of the Federal Trade Commission has been celebrated by Silicon Valley’s critics as the dawn of a new age of tougher antitrust enforcement.

She was sworn into office with one of the most ambitious visions of any chair at the agency, following years of high-profile proposals to dismantle large tech companies’ power that she spelled out both in her academic writing and in her work on a congressional investigation into Big Tech’s power.

But her promise is about to collide with the reality of the FTC. 

The more than 100-years-old agency has come under fire in recent years for failing to police privacy and competition abuses.

“She wants to take a car that she thinks has been driving at about five miles per hour and make it go 250,” said William Kovacic, a former chairman of the agency.

Khan is entering the agency at a critical moment, with pressure mounting from members of both parties to rein in tech companies. That’s resulting in greater scrutiny of the FTC’s track record.

Khan inherits a key antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, which seeks to break up the social network over allegations that it copied, acquired and killed its rivals. The lawsuit is being watched as a test of Washington’s ability to check Silicon Valley’s power amid a broader debate about changing tech regulations.

She’ll also be running an agency that lawmakers and experts for years have warned is under-resourced and lacking deep technical expertise at a time when companies are growing ever more powerful and wealthy, and are building bigger lobbying forces in Washington.

And there will be immediate pressure for Khan to do more. 

Anti-monopoly groups have called on the agency to pursue similar competition complaints against other tech giants, including the e-commerce titan Amazon. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But those efforts will confront a U.S. judicial system that for decades has held a fairly narrow view of what constitutes an antitrust harm, which could be a major hurdle to achieving Khan’s sweeping vision of competition enforcement.

“She’s got some things that can be done under existing law, but nothing like what she wants to get done,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.

She also faces sky-high expectations.

Amid this backdrop, Khan is likely to face immediate, intense pressure from anti-monopoly groups that have been calling for greater antitrust enforcement.

“The constituency that wanted her appointment to take place has expectations that are not merely stratospheric, they are out of this world,” Kovacic said. “She hasn’t even stepped foot in her office yet, and they are speaking as if she’s traveled to Mars.”

Her efforts in part hinge on Congress overhauling competition laws. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers last week introduced a series of bills that would outlaw many of the allegedly anticompetitive tactics that tech companies used to solidify their dominance. But it’s unclear whether they’ll all pass a bitterly divided Congress, as some Republicans raise concerns about them.

It seems likely the agency will see its funding grow under Khan, especially after the Senate passed legislation that would overhaul merger filing fees to provide more financing to antitrust enforcers. House lawmakers have introduced a similar proposal, which is less controversial than some of the other tech competition bills.

There remain many uncertainties about Khan’s tenure.

She is coming into the FTC with a 3-to-2 Democratic majority, but it’s unclear how long that will last. Rohit Chopra (D) is awaiting his confirmation to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If he leaves, it could be difficult for President Biden to build the bipartisan support needed to install another commissioner.

And nearly five months into his term, Biden has yet to announce who will run the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Experts say the federal government’s success in taking on the tech giants hinges on those agencies working together.

Former FTC officials and antitrust lawyers say one immediate area where Khan could make change is in personnel. 

Her bold vision could excite people and be a draw for recruiting new technologists and legal minds. And she’ll have broad authority over who leads bureaus within the agency, allowing her to set the agenda.

“That’s where there’s real opportunity to reinvigorate the FTC and its priorities,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist at the agency.

Our top tabs

Snapchat is discontinuing a feature that critics say led to fatal car crashes. 

The phasing out of the “speed filter” feature comes eight years after it was introduced by the app, NPR’s Bobby Allyn reports. The decision marks a major reversal for Snap, which has defended the feature in the face of lawsuits from families of people killed driving when allegedly trying to score high speeds. 

The feature “is barely used by Snapchatters,” and “in light of that, we are removing it altogether,” a company spokeswoman said.

Critics welcomed the move, despite being discouraged by how long it took. “Lives will be saved. Crashes will be prevented, but the lawyer in me says, ‘My God, why did it take so long?’ ” Joel Feldman, the co-founder of End Distracted Driving, said.

Police officers received discounts and free devices for promoting Ring cameras.

At least 100 Los Angeles Police Department officers received free devices or discounts from the company, and at least 15 of those officers promoted Ring products to other police officers or members of the public, the Los Angeles Times’s Johana Bhuiyan reports. The report adds to growing civil liberties concerns about Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement agencies, which allow them to request access to cameras.

Accepting free devices and recommending them is generally not prohibited under ethics rules, LAPD spokeswoman Detective Meghan Aguilar said. It’s not clear whether the officers disclosed their relationship with the company. 

Ring ended the program, also known as Pillar, in 2019, company spokeswoman Emma Daniels said. (Amazon owns Ring, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The FCC advanced a proposed ban on products from Chinese tech companies such as Huawei.

The ban would apply to equipment such as surveillance cameras Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, video camera maker Hikvision and three other companies that the FCC says shouldn’t be trusted, Bloomberg News’s Todd Shields reports

Cameras made by Hikvision and Dahua, another company that would be banned, have been bought by more than 100 towns, counties and cities across the United States. 

The FCC’s unanimous 4-0 vote sets up a review process before a final vote.

Huawei called the vote “misguided and unnecessarily punitive,” and Hikvision said it “strongly opposes” the measure. Dahua, a video surveillance company, said the company “does not and never has represented any type of threat to U.S. national security” and said the FCC actions were “unwarranted.”

Rant and rave

Helicopter start-up Blade had a fake spokesman for three years, Insider’s Gabrielle Bluestone reports. The company’s CEO, Rob Wiesenthal, said in an interview that he portrayed the fake spokesman in conversations with news outlets. Nieman Journalism Lab founder Joshua Benton:

The New York Times’s Kate Conger:

BuzzFeed News’s Stephanie M. Lee:

Lauren Starke, the head of communications for New York Magazine:

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Daybook

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, speaks at a NetChoice event on June 22 at noon.
  • Oliver Dowden, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, discusses global competition over technology at a Brookings Institution event on June 23 at 9 a.m.
  • Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Margrethe Vestager, Europe's digital enforcer, discuss artificial intelligence and bias at an event hosted by BSA | The Software Alliance on June 24 at 11 a.m.

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