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Lina Khan in the Lion’s Den: Republicans Grill FTC Chair During House Hearing Tinged With Racial Undertones

Lina Khan in the Lion’s Den: Republicans Grill FTC Chair During House Hearing Tinged With Racial Undertones

  • The 34-year-old Pakistani American faced questions about mismanagement at her agency and its disregard for ethics and congressional oversight.

The 34-year-old Pakistani American has been in the crosshairs of Republicans ever since President Biden nominated her to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission, if not at the behest of the Big-Tech lobbyists, but because of her ethnicity. It is not surprising therefore that during a House hearing on Thursday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) implied Khan was under Republican attack for her work in part because of her ethnicity.

Khan made her debut appearance before the House Judiciary Committee to answer charges of mismanagement of the FTC and its disregard for ethics and congressional oversight. She was grilled by the GOP-controlled committee on the FTC’s “alleged ethical violations and its recent losing streak in court,” Politico reported. Republicans on the committee criticized her “alleged mismanagement of the agency, perceived ethical violations and attacks on big business, especially Elon Musk and Twitter, and whether she is using her position to advance a partisan progressive agenda,” the Politico report said. 

FTC has been embroiled in several legal cases against technology companies. Khan, an outspoken critic of Big Tech before becoming the agency’s head, “has tried, not always successfully, to toughen government regulation of those companies,” The New York Times said. This week, the FTC “suffered a major defeat” when “a federal judge declined to block Microsoft’s looming $69 billion takeover of video game company Activision Blizzard,” news reports said. “The FTC had sought to ax the deal, saying it will hurt competition,” the reports added.

Under Khan, the FTC has also opened an inquiry into OpenAI, “the artificial intelligence start-up that makes ChatGPT,” as reported by The New York Times. Under Khan, the agency is investigating “whether the chatbot has harmed consumers through its collection of data and its publication of false information on individuals.”

It also sent a letter to the company, where it detailed the probe, The Times said. Noting that the FTC is “looking into OpenAI’s security practices,” the 20-page letter included “dozens of questions” to the San Francisco-based company, “including how the start-up trains its AI models and treats personal data,” The Times said. The FTC is examining whether OpenAI “engaged in unfair or deceptive privacy or data security practices or engaged in unfair or deceptive practices relating to risks of harm to consumers,” the letter said, according to The Times.

Another Big Tech giant sued by the FTC is Amazon for “allegedly engaging in a yearlong effort to enroll consumers without consent into Amazon Prime and making it difficult for them to cancel their subscription,” The Times said. The FTC has also been investigating Twitter, including efforts this spring to obtain owner Elon Musk’s internal communications, as part of ongoing oversight into the social media company’s privacy and cybersecurity practices.

The Hearing

The hearing was partisan, with Republicans criticizing Khan, and Democrats seeking to defend Khan. “They were occasionally joined by Republicans on the panel including Rep. Ken Buck,” Reuters reported. 

In his opening statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) accused Khan of  “trying to usher in a radical departure from the norms that made the American economy great to a system where her and her cronies have unchecked power over business practices in our country, untethered from any reasonable reading of precedent or statutory law.” Addressing FTC’s open investigation into Musk’s actions since buying Twitter, he called it “a shakedown,” not “harassment.” He said “Khan has no interest in providing information to the people’s representatives in the Congress, to the people on this committee when we ask for it.”

As reported by The Hill, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) called out the “hypocrisy” and “the lack of integrity” of some Republican lawmakers who were interrogating FTC Khan. He alleged that “these GOP lawmakers weaponized the government Jan. 6 “to overthrow the government in contradiction of their oath of office,” The Hill said. 

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York defended Khan, arguing that the agency was tackling “concentration in certain areas of the U.S. economy,” the Reuters report said. “Ultimately Chair Khan, you will face attacks today because you are doing your job. That is what threatens Republicans.”

Khan got support from Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Johnson as well. They both praised her for protecting consumers and keeping big business in check,” Reuters said. Johnson also implied that she “was under Republican attack for her work in part because of her ethnicity,” The Hill report said. “When we treat a witness who looks like you with the politics of personal destruction, and when we only attack witnesses who look like you with allegations of incompetence and a lack of ability to lead their agency, it’s indicative of the need for this committee to reflect what the American people look like.”

The White House also put out a statement backing Khan. “Chair Khan has delivered results for families, consumers, workers, small businesses, and entrepreneurs,” said White House Press Secretary Michael Kikukawa.

Khan responded repeatedly that she followed all ethical guidelines. According to Reuters she “defended the agency’s actions, saying that the FTC requests were motivated by a desire to ensure that Twitter complied with its privacy rules and that the social media platform has a history of lax security and privacy policies.”

Politico noted that Khan’s role as “one of the Biden administration’s most progressive leaders made her the direct target of partisan bickering.” Although she is “unlikely to back down in the face of GOP attacks,” the publication says the “Congress can impact her ability to fulfill her wide-ranging goals by restricting the agency’s budget.”

See Also

A Crusader

In May 2021, Khan became one of the youngest commissioners in the FTC’s history. She had earlier apprenticed as a legal advisor to for FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, now director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She has earned her reputation as a crusader against Big Tech after she penned an article in 2017 while she was still a law student at Columbia titled, “Amazon’s antitrust paradox.” In the paper, Khan argued that the existing antitrust laws are not equipped to rein in the monopolistic tendencies of the tech giants like Amazon, Google, Apple and others. An associate professor of law at Columbia Law School, she teaches and writes on antitrust law, infrastructure industries law, and the antimonopoly tradition. 

Prior to joining Columbia, she served as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law, where she led the congressional investigation into digital markets and the publication of its final report. Her academic work “examines the limits of the current paradigm in antitrust law, assessing how its welfare-based framework fails to capture empirical realities and betrays the republican origins of antitrust,” according to her website

Several of her projects “have focused on how dominant digital-era firms freshly reveal these shortcomings and demand an approach to anti- monopoly that is animated by questions of power, distribution, and democracy.” Her work has been published by the Columbia Law Review, Harvard Law Review, The University of Chicago Law Review, and The Yale Law Journal.

During law school, she litigated on behalf of homeowners through Yale’s Mortgage Foreclosure Litigation Clinic and spent summers at law firms Gupta Wessler and Cohen Milstein, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Khan is a graduate of Williams College and Yale Law School, where was awarded the Reinhardt Fellowship for public interest law. She was among several South Asian Americans named in Time Next 100, highlighting emerging leaders who are shaping the future.

Khan was born in London and moved to the U.S. with her family at age 11.She earned her B.A. in Political Theory from Williams College in 2010 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 2017. Originally, she aspired to become a journalist for The Wall Street Journal. To this end, she served as editor of the student newspapers The Williams Record at Williams College and of Yale’s Yale Law Journal. “I realized that the law is one of our main tools for dealing with monopolies,” Khan told Time magazine in an October 2019 interview. Before joining Yale, she worked at the New America Foundation, where she did anti-monopoly research and wrote for the Open Markets Program.

Khan is married to Shah Ali, a cardiologist at Columbia University in Manhattan. The couple has a baby boy. 

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