Technology

FTC chair Khan expecting ‘very active year ahead’

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Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan has a busy year ahead of her.

With the panel’s newly restored Democratic majority, the agency tasked with enforcing antitrust laws and protecting consumers is poised to tackle a diverse set of issues across the economy.

“As a general matter, we have a very active year ahead that’s planned,” Khan, who was picked by President Biden to lead the agency early in his term, told The Hill in an interview Wednesday.

“There are a whole set of major policy initiatives that we have underway that we’re expecting will come to fruition over this next year.”

Khan, 33, will be able to pursue those goals without necessarily having to win over Republicans on the panel, following the much-delayed confirmation of Alvaro Bedoya to the commission.

Bedoya’s expertise — he was the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology — will likely likely prove pivotal in pursuing one of Khan’s focuses, digital privacy.

“During the pandemic reliance on these technologies really dramatically increased and Americans are now often dependent on these key digital tools and services to navigate their day to day lives,” Khan told The Hill. 

Not only is the agency “very actively” enforcing existing laws governing data collection, Khan explained, but is also considering using its rule-making authority to further regulate some commercial surveillance practices.

The FTC recently issued a joint statement to the industry clarifying how the educational technology that has proliferated in America’s schools during the pandemic interacts with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which sets rules on what information about children can be collected.

The statement warns that conditioning children’s participation in school work on them handing over data could violate COPPA.

“​​Children should not be required to sign up for surveillance in order to sign up to do their schoolwork,” Khan said Wednesday.

The FTC has also been active in the healthcare space.

The agency earlier this week voted to launch an inquiry into the impact of pharmacy benefit managers, the third party groups that manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of health insurers, on prescription costs and access. An effort earlier in Khan’s term to launch a similar probe was denied on a split 2-2 vote.

The FTC last week sued to block hospital mergers in New Jersey and Utah, building on successful efforts by the agency to stop similar deals from being completed.

“There’s been empirical research showing how hospital consolidation in particular can really, really harm Americans through higher prices but also through reduced access,” Khan said.

The agency also launched a probe into the recent baby formula shortage to find out how market consolidation could have contributed to the problem and potential future shortages across the economy.

A main area of focus for Khan, both in her academic career before coming to the FTC and as chair, is competition.

The agency has initiated a joint review of merger guidelines with the Justice Department’s antitrust division and has been holding forums with market participants across the country as part of that process.

Khan’s FTC continues to work on enforcing existing competition rules, especially during a surge of merger filings.

“We’re really focusing our enforcement of resources on dominant actors,” she explained. “We want to make sure we’re focusing on them to make sure we’re really going at some of these root causes, rather than addressing kind of ‘fly by night’ actors.”

The agency is in the midst of an antitrust case against Facebook and is reportedly probing the market power of Amazon as well. 

While tackling all of those priorities, Khan has faced questions about internal affairs at the agency.

A recent internal survey, highlighted in a public letter by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), found decreasing morale among staff.

Khan has already taken some steps to address that internal displeasure, reportedly lifting a ban on public appearances by FTC employees, and told The Hill she and her team are engaged with staff to address other concerns.

“We take those results incredibly seriously and want to make sure that we’re getting the type of feedback that we can use to make sure that FTC staff who are enormously hardworking and enormously passionate about delivering for Americans are able to do their work productively,” she said.

Tags Alvaro Bedoya Biden Federal Trade Commission Lina Khan
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