WASHINGTON — One of Lina Khan’s first projects as a new staff member at an antitrust think tank in 2011 was researching the history of the market for books, which had increasingly been dominated by Amazon. It was an early, unpublished entry in a body of work that has since established her as a major critic of the tech giants and corporate concentration.
She spent the next 10 years honing her arguments, becoming a leading figure in a growing movement that calls for more aggressive policing of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
Now she’s in a position to put those ideas into action — and in doing so, potentially reshape how the country regulates its biggest companies. On Tuesday Ms. Khan, 32, was sworn in as chair of the Federal Trade Commission after being appointed to the role by President Biden, the youngest in the agency’s history and its most progressive in at least a generation.
“She brings to the job what I would call the boldest vision for the agency in its history,” William Kovacic, a former chairman of the agency, said of her approach to competition law. “So in that respect, she is a potentially transformative figure.”
The question is how much she will be able to accomplish.
Her fast ascent from researcher to leader of a large federal agency underscores the growing concerns about the power of the big tech companies — and big business in general — in Washington. In her new job, she will command more than 1,000 investigators, lawyers and economists who are responsible for policing the American economy.
Her reach will extend far beyond the tech giants and the antitrust legal critiques where she made her name. The F.T.C. investigates unfair or deceptive practices by companies in addition to antitrust violations. This year alone, it has challenged the merger of two cement producers in Pennsylvania, cracked down on unsupported statements about treatments for Covid-19 and reached a deal with two liquor companies over a merger it said would hurt competition for cheap sparkling wine.
But Ms. Khan will also confront her share of limits. In order to create new rules or take major actions against companies, she will need to persuade at least two of the four other commissioners to agree with her. She will also need to make decisions that can hold up in the courts, which have tended to push back against aggressive antitrust enforcement.
“If you want your vision to endure,” Mr. Kovacic said, “you have to change law and policy, and you can’t do that by yourself.”
Ms. Khan did not comment for this article. In a statement on Tuesday, she said she looked forward to “working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse.”
Ms. Khan rose quickly to prominence. After a few years at the think tank in Washington — during which she wrote, among other things, about the failure to rein in concentration in chicken farming — she went to law school at Yale. While a student there, she wrote about how Amazon’s rise illustrated the need for a more muscular approach to regulating industry. The article turned her into a celebrity in the small world of antitrust law.
Ms. Khan then made stops in Washington that established her as a behind-the-scenes presence. She worked at the F.T.C., for the progressive commissioner Rohit Chopra, and on Capitol Hill, as a staff member for a sweeping investigation of Silicon Valley’s power. As lawmakers grilled the chief executives of the Big Tech companies, Ms. Khan sat behind them.
During that time, Ms. Khan rarely circulated among Washington’s politicians and policymakers at galas and other events. Her supporters say she is cerebral, calm under pressure and generally lacking the kind of visible ego that is endemic to Washington strivers.
“She is extremely humble,” said Sarah Miller, the director of the American Economic Liberties Project and a former co-worker of Ms. Khan’s who supports her approach to antitrust. “She is focused on ideas and strong arguments.”
But as chair of the F.T.C., she will most likely need to use the bully pulpit as one of her most powerful tools.
She will be the face of the agency, and of the country’s oversight of big business. She will represent the agency at congressional hearings and on panels and in speeches for the thousands of lawyers paid to defend clients in front of the F.T.C.
Leaders of the agency frequently use those public events to present their vision of antitrust and consumer protection law, making the case to the public and their colleagues on the commission.
Ms. Khan will also have more blunt instruments at her disposal. The agency can reject mergers or force companies to modify the terms of their acquisitions. In the past decade, the agency has approved numerous deals involving the tech giants, like Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. It didn’t stand in the way of Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp. But Ms. Khan has already said she thinks regulators should scrutinize those types of transactions more closely.
The agency can also take companies to court for violating the law, as when it sued Facebook last year accusing it of abusing its monopoly power. It is able to make rules regarding what constitutes fair competition.
Ms. Khan is one of five commissioners, and one of three Democrats, giving her a working majority as she starts her new job. But Mr. Chopra has been nominated to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and his departure would deadlock the commission between the Democrats and its two Republicans until Mr. Biden can get a new member confirmed by the Senate.
She also faces other threats to her agenda. Whatever major moves she makes will most likely have to survive challenges in courtrooms dominated by conservative judges. This year, the Supreme Court unanimously limited the F.T.C.’s ability to claw back money from companies that deceive customers.
Critics say that the job of antitrust and consumer protection enforcer is to adhere to laws that already exist. Her reputation, however, is built on her criticism of the laws.
Robert Bork Jr., president of the Antitrust Education Project, a group that advocates for a traditional interpretation of antitrust law, wrote on Tuesday that Ms. Khan was a “celebrity scholar recasting antitrust law into a tool to enable government to control capitalism.” Mr. Bork is the son of Robert Bork, the legal scholar who championed much of the current antitrust doctrine that Ms. Khan criticizes.
Her skepticism of an antitrust theory known as the consumer welfare standard — the measure of competition based on whether prices for consumers rise — is dangerous, Mr. Bork warned.
“When standards are vague, and the law ambiguous, the Biden administration and its regulators will have the means to arbitrarily crack down on any business,” he said.
For now, though, her supporters are elated. Representative David Cicilline, the House Democrat whose investigation Ms. Khan worked on last year, said he believed her appointment was a change from decades during which the agency largely approved corporate concentration.
“I think we can expect a very different approach with this monopoly moment and the enormous market dominance of these technology firms with Lina Khan at the head of the F.T.C.,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.
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