Biden to name Big Tech critic as top antitrust cop
The White House said on Tuesday it would appoint Jonathan Kanter as the Justice Department’s senior antitrust official, a move that would add another longtime critic of Big Tech and corporate concentration to a powerful regulatory post.
President Biden’s plan to appoint Mr Kanter, an antitrust lawyer who has made a career of representing rivals of US tech giants like Google and Facebook, shows how the administration is siding with the growing group of lawmakers, of researchers and regulators who say Valley has gained inordinate power over how Americans talk to each other, buy products online and consume news.
Mr Biden has appointed other Big Tech critics to leading roles, such as Amazon critic Lina Khan, to head the Federal Trade Commission. Tim Wu, another lawyer who says regulators must crack down on tech giants, plays an economic policy role in the White House. And this month, Mr Biden signed an executive order aimed at increasing competition in the economy and limiting corporate dominance.
Mr. Kanter, 47, is the founder of Kanter Law Group, which markets itself online as an “antitrust advocacy shop.” He previously worked for the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Its services have attracted some of Big Tech’s most prominent critics in corporate America, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Microsoft, as well as upstarts like Spotify and Yelp.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kanter will head a division of the Justice Department that last year filed a complaint arguing that Google had illegally protected a monopoly on online search services. The agency’s antitrust division also asked about Apple’s business practices.
The White House took more than six months from Mr. Biden’s swearing in to land on Mr. Kanter. The administration has had to juggle progressive and moderate factions within its own party, as well as the likelihood of Republican support in a divided Senate.
The decision gained immediate approval from policymakers and advocacy groups, helping to lead the charge for tighter antitrust enforcement.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Democrat from Minnesota who heads the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, called Mr. Kanter “an excellent choice”, citing his “deep legal experience and past advocacy for aggressive actions.”
Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, a progressive rights advocacy group, said in a statement that “President Biden has made an excellent choice to head the DOJ’s antitrust division,” noting that Mr. Kanter had “has dedicated his career to re-energizing the application of antitrust laws.
Makan Delrahim, a lawyer who led the Justice Department’s antitrust efforts under President Donald J. Trump, said in a text message that Mr. Kanter would be a “great leader” of the division and called him “serious lawyer” with private sector and government experience.
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The announcement could be less warmly received by Wall Street traders who helped push M&A volumes to record highs, propelled in part by an exuberant stock market.
Washington’s scrutiny of acquisitions has spread beyond big tech deals that make headlines to industries like consumer goods, agriculture, insurance and health care.
The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit to block the proposed merger of Aon and Willis Towers Watson, its first major antitrust action since Mr Biden took office. The FTC announced in March that it was forming a group to “update” its approach to assessing the impact of drug deals, an industry that generally falls under its purview. This followed a report led by Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat from California, examining deals in the industry.
In recent years, Mr. Kanter has developed an unusual practice of criticizing the tech giants within Washington business law firms. Tech giants have become lucrative clients for large law firms, often making it difficult for these firms to work for their opponents.
But last year he left Paul, Weiss – an elite corporate litigation firm – because his portfolio representing critics of tech giants conflicted with other work at the firm.
“Jonathan made this decision because of a complicated legal dispute that would have required him to end important and long-standing representations and relationships with his clients,” the firm said at the time.
Critics of Mr Kanter are likely to question whether his previous work is a conflict of interest that should keep him out of investigations into tech giants. Facebook and Amazon have both asked Ms Khan to withdraw from cases involving the FTC companies, even though her background is as a lawyer and not as a paid representative for their rivals.
When asked if Mr Kanter would recuse himself from cases involving Google and Apple, a White House official simply said the administration was confident it could move forward with his appointment given his expertise and its track record.
Even though Mr Kanter has the votes to be confirmed, it will likely be months before he takes over at the Justice Department. Congress takes a long hiatus in August – which could push its confirmation beyond Labor Day.