Jun 24, 2021 - Technology

Lina Khan's mission

An iron anvil with a judicial gavel next to it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

All of the world's trillion-dollar companies (with the exception of Saudi Aramco) are reportedly having what Protocol's Issie Lapowsky characterizes as "heart palpitations" over the appointment of Lina Khan as FTC chair. But don't expect anything drastic to happen soon.

Why it matters: Khan is the most fearsome foe that Big Tech could have imagined in America's top antitrust role — and her fans in Congress are making waves as well. But you'd never guess that from the giants' share prices, which have been hitting new all-time highs since the announcement.

How it works: There are two main reasons Khan doesn't seem to be worrying the markets.

  • The first is financial: The markets don't necessarily see a lot of value in the giant companies being as big as they are. As the NYT's Shira Ovide points out, with size comes flabbiness and a lack of strategic focus.
  • The possibility of break ups — spinning out the likes of Instagram and YouTube and AWS — could create value rather than destroy it.

The bigger reason for the market's sanguine reaction is that no one knows whether or how Khan will be able to permanently change the U.S. regulatory system's approach to antitrust.

The big picture: Khan is a lawyer who's acutely aware that even if she can reconfigure the FTC staff to align with her vision, those rulings would still need to be upheld by appointed judges in highly contentious and drawn-out court proceedings.

  • Khan is also a journalist — and her most lasting legacy could be the degree to which she is able to use her FTC perch to shape the broader narrative about anti-competitive behavior.

Between the lines: Storytelling ability — which Khan has in spades — has had outsized financial rewards of late. But it could turn out to be even more influential with regard to changes in the way that regulators, jurists, and lawmakers think about foundational issues.

  • Where it stands: For the time being, Robert Bork's vision of antitrust dominates the jurisprudential arena. That vision came not from any particular judicial ruling but rather from a book he wrote in 1978.
  • Khan's compelling rebuttal of that vision put her on the map. Her job now is to use her bully pulpit — and her ability to hire and fire at the FTC — to start expanding the circle of people who embrace her approach.

The bottom line: What Khan wants is an almost total reimagining of the way in which antitrust is conceptualized. That's not going to come from, say, her agency's investigation into Amazon's acquisition of MGM Studios. It's going to take many years, and it's not something that financial analysts can even begin to start quantifying.

Go deeper:

  • Axios' Scott Rosenberg on how "the Goliaths are fully in command" of the transition to a new form of computer hardware — something that might normally provide opportunities for upstart competitors.
  • Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and Ashley Gold on the divisions within Congress when it comes to bills attempting to rein in Big Tech.
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