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Lina Khan: The American education of Big Tech’s biggest critic

Lina Khan
Lina Khan has just been elected chairwoman of the US Federal Trade Commission by President Joe Biden. Source: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images/AFP

Lina Khan has just been elected chairwoman of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), leaving everyday people around the world wondering who she is, and what she’s about. As part of her new portfolio, Khan will be investigating antitrust violations and upholding data privacy in the US, particularly Silicon Valley. For example, the FTC is currently taking Facebook to task for purchasing Instagram and WhatsApp — an attempt at social media monopoly, a particular area of interest for Lina Khan.

At 32, she is the youngest person to assume the role of FTC Commissioner. Khan rose to fame as a law student, when her critical 2017 paper Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox “reframed decades of monopoly law.” Here, we take a look at the education and career milestones that got Lina Khan to this point.

Lina Khan

Lina Khan testifying during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC back in April. Source: Graeme Jennings/Pool/AFP

From London to New York

Born in London to Pakistani parents, Lina Khan grew up in Golders Green before moving across the world at the age of 11. Her parents — a management consultant and an information services executive — came to the US for better prospects. Yet the unfortunate timing of their arrival subjected them to years of being “treated like potential terrorists” in the wake of the September 11 attack, as Khan has disclosed.

Adapting to the reality of her American Dream, Khan became a hardworking, intelligent student who regularly burned the midnight oil. At first, she wanted to become a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Later on, she gravitated towards legal scholarship, driven by an innate pursuit of justice and fairness.

An American education

Lina Khan studied political theory during her undergraduate days, earning a BA from Williams College in 2010. A fervent writer, she became editor of the student newspaper and completed a thesis on leading 20th-century political thinker Hannah Arendt. She then cut her teeth researching and publishing on market consolidation issues at the New America Foundation (NAF), before going on to earn her JD degree at law school.

At Yale University, Khan was awarded a Reinhardt Fellowship for public interest law. Her postgraduate years would prove incredibly formative to her career. Her paper “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” received multiple awards and recognition, including the 2018 Antitrust Writing Award for Best Academic Unilateral Conduct Article. This may have put her on the map, but what she did next would cement her fighting spirit and announce her arrival to the American legal landscape.

Lina Khan

Will Khan continue to revolutionise monopoly law and set antitrust precedents at the FTC? Source: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Lina Khan vs Big Tech

Upon returning to NAF, Khan and her team wrote in favour of the US$2.7bn EU fine against Google. This was not received well by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, especially since he helped fund NAF via Google. The result? Khan and 10 other employees left to form the Open Markets Institute, where she was free to advocate for antimonopoly policymaking.

She also most recently taught and wrote at Columbia Law School. “Several of my projects have focused on how dominant digital-era firms freshly reveal these [antitrust law] shortcomings and demand an approach to antimonopoly that is animated by questions of power, distribution, and democracy,” Khan described.

Politico has described her as a “leader of a new school of antitrust thought,” with similar honours being afforded by Time, National Journal, and Prospect. Her work — and increasingly, her background — have been profiled widely, including by US Senator Elizabeth Warren for the 2021 TIME100 NEXT. “Her writings and advocacy have pushed scholars, lawyers, activists and public officials to think differently about Big Tech,” Warren writes. “Lina’s deep knowledge and commitment to discovering the facts on the ground have not only drawn attention to the problem of concentration but shown how to address it.”

A law geek through and through, Khan’s hobbies include photography and “trying to find the most obscure industry where I can find consolidation.” She often shared her thoughts on Twitter before her appointment as FTC Commissioner. “I’m so grateful to the Senate for my confirmation. Congress created the FTC to safeguard fair competition and protect consumers, workers, and honest businesses from unfair & deceptive practices. I look forward to upholding this mission with vigour and serving the American public,” she tweeted (from a since-deleted account).

Will she be the woman to finally bring US monopolies to heel, as MSN predicts? Only time will tell. One thing we know for sure is Lina Khan will inspire generations of international students and immigrants long after her term as FTC Commissioner — which will end in September 2024.