Who is Lina Khan? Meet the unshakeable FTC chair rattling Big Tech

Republicans smeared Khan as a "bully" who is "misleading" the FTC. Here's why an FTC chair is enraging the right

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published July 14, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan prepares to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on July 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan prepares to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on July 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Facing hours of partisan attacks and personal insults Thursday from the GOP-led House Judiciary Committee, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan remained unflappable. Members of the panel — who have reportedly received up to $400,000 in campaign contributions from Big Tech employees and PACs — lambasted the former Columbia Law School professor for her adherence to ethics laws and her agency's attempts to enforce antitrust regulations in a rapidly conglomerating industry.

Republican men called her a "bully," called her leadership "a disaster," accused her of "misleading" the committee, and said her efforts to uphold anti-monopoly rules are "going to fail." Committee chair and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan — who reportedly received $76,000 from employees and PACs of Big Tech companies over the course of his career — even accused Khan, a Biden appointee, of "harassing" the company Twitter.

Using the classic ask-and-interrupt tactic of interrogation, Jordan repeatedly peppered Khan with questions that he refused to let her answer.

Khan never flinched. Unwavering, cooperative, calm — her adroit responses seemed to only further infuriate some GOP members, whose increasingly hostile remarks sparked a fierce backlash from Khan's Democratic defenders on the panel. 

Resolve and regulation

Khan's poise shouldn't come as a surprise. The legal scholar from Yale has been on the other side of the Judiciary Committee's dais, after all, having served as a council to the panel in 2019 and 2020, shaping its antitrust investigation of Amazon. Her reputation for investigative tenacity is just one reason she's become a prime target for anti-regulation lobbyists in her first two years in the chair.

"You don't talk about rope in a house where a man's been hung. You don't talk about membership in the Bar Association on a judiciary committee where there are members who never passed the bar"

"(The) FTC is firing on all cylinders," Khan told the committee in her opening statement.

"We've brought actions to protect consumers from Made in USA [label] fraud, protect military families from predatory financing, and protect addiction recovery patients from deception. We are fighting to protect the security of people's sensitive personal data and have obtained record monetary judgments—including the largest-ever judgment to protect children's privacy," Khan said.

In further tweets after the hearing, Khan said the "FTC's work is materially helping people in their daily lives. We're tackling noncompetes, high drug prices, undue repair restrictions, junk fees, subscription traps, and more."

Khan's appearance came just two days after the FTC suffered a courtroom setback in its attempt to rein in engorged market titan Microsoft. The company's looming $69 billion takeover of video game company Activision-Blizzard prompted FTC staff to try and halt the deal — which would be the single largest merger in the history of the technology industry. 

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Despite concerns that such an overwhelmingly massive mega-corporation could critically threaten fair market competition, US District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley said the FTC hadn't shown how it would cause harm. The FTC has already begun its appeal.

Microsoft isn't the only company that has led the FTC on a courthouse chase. Earlier this year, the agency was defeated in its attempt to stop Facebook parent company Meta from gobbling up virtual reality fitness company Within Unlimited. The agency has also sued Amazon for enrolling customers in Prime without their consent, and has plans to go after companies that use artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT in harmful business practices.

The mixed results of the cases offer a glimpse at Khan's character — a healthy balance of wins and losses in one's track record is the calling card of a lawyer with more spine than vanity.

Working on behalf of the public instead of a for-profit law firm also gives Khan the freedom few corporate attorneys ever get to enjoy: pursuing cases of merit through all legally available channels because it's the ethical thing to do, win or lose, without regard for whether her personal batting average makes a boutique firm's quarterly numbers look good.

But GOP panel members targeted Khan's ethics with seething, bitterly personal digs. California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley even alleged Khan "made up case law" in the FTC's anti-monopoly complaint against the Microsoft-Activision merger.

"Are you bringing cases that you expect to lose?" asked Kiley.

"Absolutely not," Khan said. 

In fact, the FTC's growing tally of formidable victories against tech titans is partly a credit to the agency's legislative tools. It has, for example, frequently leaned on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act to bring actions against data-harvesting tech companies who either fail to protect kids' private details from outside visibility, or has silently collected them. Ubiquitous video game Fortnite got slammed with a $275 million FTC fine under the law — and its parent company was hit with a second, related $245 million fine.

Some GOP members were open with their insults.

"Shame on you," said California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chiding Khan for attempting to regulate Microsoft — a company that enjoys a $1 trillion market cap as the GOP weighs a 25% FTC budget cut.

"My problem is that you're a bully," said Issa, who vowed not to support the FTC's requested $160 million budget increase, telling Khan to "stick to the things you do well."

"You run this organization and its left turn came when you took over," Issa said. "I would contend that you have overstepped your boundaries and your half-billion dollar budget is being wasted."

Khan sat through more Republican finger-wagging because she didn't recuse herself from a case involving Meta. In past statements, she'd made remarks opposing corporate acquisitions by Meta. The company petitioned the FTC to have Khan remove herself from a recent case. Then, in an August 2022 memo, designated FTC ethics official Lorielle Pankey cited Khan's previous comments and recommended Khan recuse herself.

One GOP member, however, wasn't having any of this. Rep. Ken Buck, of Colorado, brought the hearing to a halt when he ripped into Republicans and exposed Pankey for owning between $15,001 and $50,000 in Meta stock as revealed by The Revolving Door Project.

"You know how much it costs to buy Congress?," Buck asked wryly. "Big Tech does. They spent $250 million against the bills that passed out of this committee last Congress. They spent money lobbying. They spent money on advertising in members' districts. They spent money with 3rd part think tanks."

Buck fired through a list of each company's overall lobbying spend to drive home his point. Meta: $20,070,000. Amazon: $19,320,000. Google parent company Alphabet: $11,770,000. Apple: $6,500,000

Buck wasn't the only Republican who defended Khan while staking out bipartisan ground. 

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch advocate for data privacy reform, praised Khan and pointed to the FTC's recent privacy enforcement action against Amazon Ring security cameras.

Among Democrats, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler delivered a verbal smack to the committee in Khan's defense.

"Today, it is the chair of the Federal Trade Commission's turn to step into the alternate universe that is the House Judiciary Committee under MAGA Republican leadership," he said.

"Ultimately, today you'll face attacks because you're doing your job, and that is what threatens Republicans the most."

Khan's defenders, like Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, rallied, championing her for bringing the fight back to her agency.

"You have done what few before you have dared to do… take on big corporations who use their endless lobbying money to hurt Americans with more fees, less transparency, and higher costs," Jayapal said.

"I think it is precisely because of your success, your courage and your integrity that you are receiving all these baseless attacks on your character."

Tiring of Republican members' disruptive henpecking of Khan, some Democrats spit bullets back at their colleagues as tempers flared.

"Mr. Chairman, if you would ask whoever that is to shut up," Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, of Tennessee, said when interrupted.

Democrats also swung back when Wyoming attorney and Republican Rep. Harriet Hageman attacked Khan for not renewing her biennial Bar registration.

"I find this situation to be stunning and a reflection on your ethics," Hagerman chided.

Hagerman's one to talk. As late as last fall, she was the subject of formal complaints to the Wyoming Bar, and more than 50 attorneys collectively called her to the carpet because she wouldn't stop parroting fanatical claims of a "rigged" 2020 presidential election — even after more than 60 US courts ruled the election fair.

The absurdity of the attacks on Khan's Bar standing were pointed out by Cohen who noted that Jordan himself — despite chairing the House Judiciary Committee with a Juris Doctor from Ohio's Capital University Law School — had never even sat for a bar exam, much less passed one.

"You don't talk about rope in a house where a man's been hung. You don't talk about membership in the Bar Association on a judiciary committee where there are members who never passed the Bar," Cohen said.

More support came from outside the committee room during the hearing when White House Spokesman Michael Kikukawa issued a statement from the Biden administration.

"Chair Khan has delivered results for families, consumers, workers, small businesses and entrepreneurs," he said.

Kikukawa pointed to Khan's bipartisan successes "on everything from protecting our kids from unlawful use of their personal data, to making it cheaper and easier for consumers to repair items they own, to moving to ban non-competes that hurt workers, to stopping bad mergers like a semiconductor megamerger that would've stifled innovation."

Notch by notch, Khan's belt has quickly grown long with wins against Big Tech in the past two years. Among those notches, she's carved out as many for Republicans as she has for Democrats — even if it does take Republicans a bit of vicious grandstanding in a committee room before they realize it. And that, more than anything else about Khan, should scare the titans of Big Tech and their fleet of lobbyists.

"​​All those in the Big Tech world hoping for fireworks in today's judiciary hearing are probably so disappointed with how it's going," tweeted Sacha Haworth, executive director for advocacy group The Tech Oversight Project. "Unity from Dems, bipartisan agreement on reining in monopolies hand-in-hand (with the) FTC. Generally not the attack on Lina Khan they were anticipating."

She cut her teeth on Amazon's antitrust scandals, and refused to back down when Meta tried to elbow her into recusing herself. She refused to let Twitter wriggle out of consent orders, and now has Elon Musk panic-tweeting his GOP-coded pleas. She walked into a lion's den of well-lobbied elected officials Thursday without a dime of tech stock to her name and fresh off a courtroom defeat, never lost her grace under partisan fire — and walked out with both Republicans and Democrats agreeing on more than a few regulatory goals for her agency.

Undaunted by her office's share of losses and counting no win too small to collect, Khan's pursuit of incremental victories has been ceaseless. Over the past few decades, the FTC has developed a (partly justified) reputation for trafficking in little more than wrist-slap fines, self-congratulatory press releases, and feigned helplessness in the face of tech-industry conglomeration.

But atop a regulatory agency that has been at times defanged by both Congress and revolving-door lobbying, Khan seems hellbent on proving that public watchdogs still have teeth. And that, under her watch, Big Tech will escape neither Democrats' nor Republicans' bite. 

So who is this seemingly unstoppable ethics powerhouse? She's Lina Khan — and she's Big Tech's worst nightmare. 

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at