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A look at the person behind the Amazon lawsuit

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today the Federal Trade Commission and 17 states effectively declared war on one of the biggest companies in the world. A new lawsuit accuses Amazon of abusing its monopoly power to hurt shoppers and sellers. The chair of the FTC has had the company in her sights for a long time. When she was a Yale law student, Lina Khan wrote an influential paper arguing that antitrust laws had failed to keep Amazon in check. In another part of the program, we'll dig into the details of the new lawsuit. Right now let's look more closely at the woman leading the charge against Amazon with Wall Street Journal tech policy reporter Ryan Tracy. Welcome.

RYAN TRACY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that 2017 paper that Lina Khan wrote. It went viral, which is very unusual for legal scholarship. What was it about her thinking that caught everybody's attention?

TRACY: Well, it tapped into something that a lot of people in Washington were thinking about, which was the power of large technology companies and also just the power of big companies in the economy in general. And, you know, there had been concerns and discontent about that bubbling going back to the 2008 financial crisis and the concerns about big banks. And she and other scholars started to tell this story about how the lack of enforcement of antitrust laws was to blame for this.

SHAPIRO: And so broadly, you have this concern about big business, more narrowly big tech. And then specifically, has Amazon kind of always been Lina Khan's white whale?

TRACY: In some ways, yes. You know, in this paper, she used Amazon as the example to tell this story about antitrust laws. And she wrote that it was as if Jeff Bezos had charted the company's growth by drawing a map of antitrust laws and then devising routes to smoothly bypass them, in her words. The argument was that antitrust had started to focus kind of myopically, in her view, on low consumer prices, which are obviously a good thing. But her argument was if you just look at those - at that measure in the short term, you're missing something bigger going on, and that is the health of the market as a whole and problems that creep up when companies come to dominate a market over a period of years.

SHAPIRO: She's been chair of the FTC for a little over two years now. What's her track record been like - any big wins or losses to note?

TRACY: Well, she and her defenders would certainly point to what they view as wins. A lot of those are on the merger front, where companies have abandoned deals that might otherwise have gone through in sectors like defense, for example, because the FTC has raised questions about them and either filed lawsuits or threatened to file lawsuits. But there have also been some pretty high-profile losses, including in the tech space. So the FTC tried to block Facebook's acquisition of a virtual reality app developer. It lost on that. And more recently, in probably the biggest loss, it failed to prevent Microsoft from buying the video game studio Activision. And those episodes have raised some questions about whether she can translate these theories into practice.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any sense of what she's like as a person?

TRACY: You know, she's a very polite person. She's very careful in the way that she deals with the media in general. You know, she tries to not make news when she's out in public appearances. You know, to see someone as young as her get into that position...

SHAPIRO: She's 34. Is that right?

TRACY: Yeah. And that makes her, you know, one of the youngest, if not the youngest, FTC commissioner of all time, let alone someone who's running the agency. She's also got a young kid at home. So, you know, it's kind of amazing. The FTC is not just antitrust. Its authority reaches across the entire economy. You know, the FTC brings cases about contact lenses and funeral homes and - you name it. So the FTC is a really big job.

SHAPIRO: Wall Street Journal tech policy reporter Ryan Tracy. Thanks a lot.

TRACY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And tune in tomorrow to hear us speak with FTC Chair Lina Khan herself about the new lawsuit against Amazon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.