South Asians Khan, Chopra Battle Technology Monopolies

sa_inBy Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It’s a tale of a modern day Goliath pitted against the likes of a David who is churning up evidence using old-fashioned research in out-of-vogue books sequestered in musty library shelves. In one single scholarly article, an unknown law student has taken on the monopolistic practices of technology behemoth Amazon and challenged the way that other mighty titans of internet commerce behave, contending that it is equivalent to the way the railroads operated a hundred years ago.

It is the central idea in the article “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” written in 2017 by young associate scholar Lina Khan at Yale Law School’s Open Markets Program which examines how current laws fail to address the power and depth of reach of the modern digital retail economy. Her work has been published in many journals across the nation, including a front page article in the business section of the New York Times in September.

Lina Khan was born in London to Pakistani parents who immigrated to the United States when she was 11. She is now 29, newly married to a Texas doctor and was supposed to move this summer to Los Angeles, to a clerkship with Stephen Reinhardt, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge who suddenly died in March. Instead, Khan has started a fellowship at Columbia University this fall.

Last year, Khan pored over old anti-trust volumes from past congressional hearings on the shelves of Southern Methodist University’s library refining her ideas on the monopoly powers of the biggest and most prevalent company of our times, Amazon, which dominates the online and now even brick-and-mortars retail commerce, employs 500,000 people worldwide and has a formidable internet cloud presence. People are drawn to it for the extent of its products and the speed of delivery and few even think that they need to be protected from it, just as they did with Microsoft until the Justice Department took in on in the mid 90’s.

The same could be said about the monopolistic tendencies of Facebook, Google, Twitter or Apple and many other internet titans and slowly regulators in the US, Europe, China and India are coming around to the idea that these companies wield too much power in the economic and even political landscape and Khan’s 93-page paper has given that a needed impetus. Her central argument is that Amazon, just like the railroads, is a delivery system that exerts too much control on many parts of the economy while collecting so much data on customers that it can influence their behavior and so can’t be trusted to create the future we will inhabit. Her paper has been a runaway best-seller and has made Khan a minor celebrity.

And she has caught the attention of Rohit Chopra, a new Democratic commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission who brought her in as a temporary adviser for the hearings this fall at Georgetown University Law Center on what rules are needed to enforce a changing economy and the concentration of power. Chopra is happy to have her onboard and applauds her zeal and scholarship that is rare among law students.

Rohit Chopra is an American consumer advocate who was previously Assistant Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and was appointed in 2017 to fill the open Democratic seat on the Federal Trade Commission, taking office on May 2, 2018.

Chopra received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Before entering government, he worked at McKinsey & Company, the global management consultancy.

After the 2008 financial crisis and the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, Chopra worked on the implementation team to launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. After the launch, Chopra served as the agency’s “student loan pointman.”

Chopra is a vocal critic of the mounting levels of student loan debt in the United States. In 2017, Chopra released a report showing that over 1 million Americans defaulted on a student loan in 2016.