Mar 9, 2021 - Technology

Biden gives tech's toughest critics seats at the policy table

Tim Wu and Lina Khan

Tim Wu and Lina Khan. Photos: Getty Images

An influx of tech antitrust hardliners in the Biden administration signals a new toughness on tech from the Democrats.

Why it matters: Tech companies that grew unfettered by regulation during the Obama administration will now be under scrutiny from advocates that have made a name for themselves by targeting the behemoths' size and power.

Lina Khan, well-known in antitrust circles for her ideas about stopping platforms like Amazon from competing directly with sellers, is being vetted as a nominee for a slot as Democratic FTC commissioner, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The news was first reported by Politico.

  • Khan is a former public interest advocate who did a stint at the FTC working for former Democratic commissioner Rohit Chopra, and served as an adviser on the House Judiciary Committee during its year-long investigation of Big Tech firms.
  • Khan represents a newer school of antitrust thought, where companies' size, market dominance and treatment of competitors is considered anticompetitive behavior that regulators need to reel in — rather than judging monopoly power primarily by harm to consumers.

Tim Wu, known for coining the term "net neutrality," was named a special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy.

  • His role at the White House will encompass competition policy in other industries as well, according to a New York Times report.
  • Wu is a Columbia University Professor and author of "The Curse of Bigness" about the dangers of Big Tech's growing power.
  • He previously worked for the New York Attorney General, and also held advisor roles at the FTC and for the White House's National Economic Council during the Obama administration.

Of note: The Senate Judiciary Committee holds its confirmation hearing for civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta, nominated for Associate Attorney General, on Tuesday.

  • If confirmed, Gupta, who's been critical of Facebook, would oversee the antitrust and civil rights divisions at the Justice Department. However, Biden has not yet nominated a leader for the antitrust division.

What they're saying: "The president has been clear — on the campaign, and, probably, more recently — that he stands up to the abuse of power, and that includes the abuse of power from big technology companies and their executives," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week.

Reality check: The roles Khan and Wu will hold within in the administration are not final decision makers, so while they will be influential in shaping the debate, they won't have the last word on outcomes.

What to watch: Biden's pick to lead the Justice Department's antitrust division and the permanent chair of the FTC, which launched cases against Google and Facebook last year, will give more clarity on the administration's stance on antitrust enforcement.

Go deeper