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Biden Administration Gears Up For A Showdown With Big Tech

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is gearing up for a showdown with Big Tech. He's reportedly hiring two of the most outspoken critics of Amazon, Facebook and Google for influential roles in his administration. These critics have pushed for the government to get much more aggressive at reigning in tech giants, even break some of them up. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond is with us this morning. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: The tech critics in question are Lina Khan and Tim Wu. Tell us about them and the jobs they might take.

BOND: Yeah, so they're both Columbia Law professors. And in Lina Khan's case, Biden is reportedly getting ready to nominate her to the Federal Trade Commission, which is, of course, one of the main antitrust regulators. And Tim Wu has been tapped as a tech policy adviser at the National Economic Council. And, Rachel, it's kind of hard to overstate just how big a deal these names are in tech policy circles. You know, they both have very progressive views about how the government should regulate monopoly power, and now we're potentially seeing them moving into these influential roles, as the government is investigating and in some cases even suing these tech giants.

Wu worked on tech policy in the Obama administration. He's actually known for coining the term net neutrality. He now says the tech giants have helped create a new Gilded Age, much like the robber barons did in the industrial era with, you know, the railroad and oil monopolies. And Wu has advocated for breaking up Facebook. Khan has been described as a legal prodigy. She's just 32. She became famous when she was still in law school for writing a groundbreaking paper about Amazon. And she's become the face of this approach that's sometimes jokingly called hipster antitrust.

MARTIN: That demands more explanation.

BOND: (Laughter) Right. So her argument is that the current way that the government deals with monopoly power has really fallen short, especially when it comes to the tech giants. So these rules, they're really focused on when consumers like you and me get hurt - so, you know, maybe we have fewer choices, we have to pay more for products or services. Khan says that way of thinking doesn't address concerns about a company like Amazon. Those concerns focus on the harms to other people affected, like, say, the independent sellers who rely on the platform to make money. You know, she says Amazon should not be able to both control the marketplace and sell as a competitor in that marketplace.

Here's what she told my colleague Alina Selyukh back in 2018 about the bind that Amazon is putting sellers in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LINA KHAN: That dependence means that Amazon gets to often call all of the shots. And I think that is oftentimes quite harmful because it means Amazon can extract more and more from these sellers, and that can affect quality.

BOND: And Khan has already had these, you know, influential views. They've already been influential in Washington. She advised a House panel last year that conducted this big investigation into Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. It found they were all monopolies with unfair power. And we should note, all four of those companies are NPR supporters.

MARTIN: OK, I think we're going to have to do a separate conversation about what is hipster about that theory.

BOND: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But that's beside the point. So this is a big shift from how the Obama administration dealt with the tech industry, isn't it?

BOND: It is. I mean, I think the Obama administration, people sort of see it as having a much cozier relationship with Silicon Valley. And it wasn't that long ago these companies were celebrated as innovators. But, you know, we've seen that really has been changing. The Trump administration, of course, was hugely critical of these companies. It sued Google and Facebook for antitrust concerns. And the Biden administration is expected to continue those lawsuits. You know, and we've just seen growing criticism of tech from both sides of the aisle.

Of course, there are some people from the tech world who are taking positions with the Biden administration, as they did under Obama. But I think the choice of people like Lina Khan, Tim Wu in these roles, these high-profile roles, does signal a tougher stance toward Silicon Valley and signals that the era of scrutiny and skepticism - what we sometimes call the tech-lash (ph) - is not over.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Shannon. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thank you.

BOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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