- Biden stacked his administration with advisors who want to take on Big Tech.
- He signed an executive order encouraging antitrust agencies to be more aggressive with enforcement.
- The tech giants have gone on the offensive, with Amazon pushing for the recusal of the FTC chair.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
With the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden declared that his administration is taking on Big Tech.
In early July, he signed a sweeping executive order that opened a new front in the federal government’s battle to rein in behemoths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.
Biden’s order established an administration policy to subject corporate dealmaking to sharper scrutiny, with even completed mergers possibly coming under new review. The Democratic president’s government plans to focus on so-called killer acquisitions – deals akin to Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram, in which a larger firm buys up a fledgling competitor.
The tech companies, of course, won’t just submit to Biden’s will. Implementing the executive order requires skilled government policymakers steeped in the intricacies of antitrust law. Biden hasn’t picked a nominee to run the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and while some top administration jobs remain unfilled, others in the White House and in independent agencies like the Federal Trade Commission are occupied by political appointees who stand out as vocal critics of corporate power.
A couple of litigious years are ahead, meaning these seven people will be critical to watch as the Biden administration turns up the heat on big tech companies.
It didn’t take long for Amazon to go on the offensive after Biden named Khan the head of the Federal Trade Commission. In a filing with the agency, Amazon’s lawyers cited her extensive past criticism of the company to argue that she should be recused from investigations into the online giant.
“Given her long track record of detailed pronouncements about Amazon, and her repeated proclamations that Amazon has violated the antitrust laws, a reasonable observer would conclude that she no longer can consider the company’s antitrust defenses with an open mind,” lawyers from Covington & Burling and Williams & Connolly wrote in a 25-page brief.
On Wednesday, Facebook filed a similar request for Khan’s recusal, arguing that she has consistently made public statements accusing the company “of conduct that merits disapproval but specifically expressing her belief that the conduct meets the elements of an antitrust offense.”
“When a new commissioner has already drawn factual and legal conclusions and deemed the target a lawbreaker, due process requires that individual to recuse herself,” Facebook said.
Khan has made her concerns about tech giants well known. As a law student, she wrote an article in the Yale Law Journal arguing that the antitrust framework in the US focused on keeping consumer prices low could not account for how companies such as Amazon also hurt competition in the market.
The 2017 article turned Khan into the face of the so-called hipster antitrust movement, which seeks to shift the focus of competition law to address a wider range of consumer-welfare goals such as increasing pay and addressing incoming inequality.
Khan went on to join the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee, where she played a key role in an investigation into large online platforms. She joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 2020.
At 32, she is the youngest-ever chair of the FTC.
Tim Wu, special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy
Biden’s hiring of Wu, 48, sent a signal that the new administration was willing to address the swelling size and power of companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Sure enough, when Biden signed the executive order in the State Dining Room, Wu was looking on with Khan — and posted a photo of the two of them on Twitter.
—Tim Wu (@superwuster)
A Columbia Law School professor and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Wu has advocated breaking up Facebook. He served as a special advisor at the FTC under the Obama administration and was later a senior enforcement counsel in the New York state attorney general’s office. There, he played a leading role in an ultimately victorious lawsuit alleging that Time Warner had exaggerated broadband speeds.
Years later, Wu coined the phrase “net neutrality,” the concept that internet service providers should treat internet traffic equally.
Wu clerked for Breyer in the 1999-2000 Supreme Court term. A fellow clerk from that term, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, was recently confirmed to the prominent federal appeals court in Washington, DC, and is considered a leading contender for a nomination to the Supreme Court if Breyer retires or another seat opens up.
In his financial disclosure, Wu revealed that he owned between $1 million and $5 million in bitcoin. Politico said in June that “the disclosures show that one of Big Tech’s most prominent critics is also invested in an asset class that is a major tech world obsession.”
Rohit Chopra, member of the Federal Trade Commission
Chopra was confirmed in 2018 to a Democratic seat on the five-member FTC. Under the Obama administration, he helped launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and served as the agency’s first student-loan ombudsman.
Last year, Chopra and Khan wrote an article in the University of Chicago Law Review imploring the FTC to set clearer rules about which conduct amounts to “unfair methods of competition.”
A lack of competition, he and Khan wrote, “can enable dominant firms to exercise their market power in harmful ways.”
“In uncompetitive markets, firms with market power can raise prices for consumers, depress wages for workers, and choke off new entrants and other upstarts, undermining innovation and business dynamism,” they wrote.
Chopra’s days on the FTC may be numbered; Biden has nominated the 39-year-old to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While the bureau has not traditionally played a meaningful role in antitrust enforcement, Biden’s executive order on competition encouraged it to issue regulations making it easier for people to access their banking data and transfer it to other banks or outside apps.
Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, member of the Federal Trade Commission
Slaughter was confirmed in 2018 to a Democratic seat on the FTC after nearly a decade in the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, now the majority leader.
She stepped in as the acting leader of the FTC after Biden took office and the commission flipped to Democratic control. Like Chopra, she has advocated for the FTC to more forcefully use its rulemaking power rather than rely on enforcement to stave off anticompetitive conduct that harms consumers.
In a November speech titled “Antitrust at a Precipice,” Slaughter said Americans were eager for such an approach, wanting antitrust agencies “to combat market power throughout the economy” in sectors ranging from healthcare and telecommunications to agriculture and social media.
“The FTC has worked hard to stop anticompetitive mergers and conduct, and now it has the opportunity to take its enforcement mission to the next level in response to increased demand from its clients, the American people,” she said in prepared remarks.
Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council
Ramamurti joined the Biden White House as a deputy director of the National Economic Council after working on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ill-fated presidential campaign.
Leading up to Biden’s inauguration, Ramamurti served on the COVID-19 Congressional Oversight Commission, a panel tasked with overseeing the federal government’s management of relief programs created last year under the CARES Act.
Along with Wu and Khan, he is among the leading proponents in the administration of a more activist approach to competition.
In an NPR interview in July, Ramamurti acknowledged the limits of the executive order, saying that antitrust enforcement is ultimately left to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.
“You can’t do that by executive order. What you can do, and which is what the president did today, is to urge those agencies to robustly enforce antitrust laws, to view mergers with some level of skepticism given the body of evidence about price increases following mergers, job losses following mergers,” he said. “And it’s to essentially set the tone for enforcement for the administration.”
Hannah Garden-Monheit, senior policy advisor on the National Economic Council
Garden-Monheit worked as an advisor to Ramamurti on the COVID-19 oversight panel and later joined the National Economic Council as a senior policy advisor. She, too, is considered an economic advisor drawn from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Before working with Ramamurti on the panel, Garden-Monheit was an associate at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. She had previously worked in Iowa politics.
According to her profile on the University of Chicago Law School’s website, she managed a campaign for the Iowa House, clerked in the state House, and was an analyst for the Iowa Senate Democratic Caucus for three years.
Gene Kimmelman, senior counselor to the associate attorney general
Kimmelman stepped down in January from the consumer group Public Knowledge to return to the Justice Department as a senior counselor to the associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta, the department’s third-ranking leader, who oversees antitrust enforcement.
Under the Obama administration, Kimmelman served as the chief counsel to the Justice Department’s antitrust division. In 2012, The Washington Post reported that Kimmelman worked from “a heavy wooden desk once used by J. Edgar Hoover” and was known as the department’s “secret weapon” on antitrust matters.
He was a driving force behind the department’s opposition to AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile in 2011, and he got involved in the DOJ’s review of Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal. The Justice Department allowed the Comcast deal to proceed in 2011 but imposed conditions, designed to preserve competition, that expired in 2018.
Earlier in his career, Kimmelman served as chief counsel to a Senate subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy, and consumer rights. His arrival in the Biden administration followed a stint volunteering on the presidential transition team focused on the Justice Department.