Lina Khan takes on her longtime target
In 2017, Lina Khan, then a 29-year-old law student, shot to fame with an academic article about why Amazon should be contained. Cutting against prevailing trends in antitrust law, Khan argued that the e-commerce giant was unfairly dominating huge swaths of the American economy.
Now the chair of the F.T.C., Ms. Khan has finally taken on Amazon, though her agency’s new lawsuit against the company isn’t focused on antitrust. Still, legal experts are wondering whether, or when, she will follow through on the theory that won her renown in the first place.
On Wednesday the F.T.C. accused Amazon of duping customers into signing up for Prime, the company’s shipping-and-video-streaming service. Amazon, according to the agency, used “manipulative, coercive or deceptive” design tactics — known as “dark patterns” — on its website to push millions into enrolling, and “knowingly complicated” the cancellation process.
“Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent,” Ms. Khan said. The F.T.C. wants the courts to stop Amazon from engaging in those practices and impose a financial penalty.
The company denied the F.T.C.’s claims, calling them “false on the facts and the law” and contending that it makes things “clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership.” Amazon added that the F.T.C. sued without advance notice, while the two were still negotiating over the claims.
This isn’t the showdown that Washington had expected. To be fair, the F.T.C. has made manipulative design practices around subscriptions a focus, and “going after a company as big as Amazon is sending a message to other players in the industry,” John Davisson, a senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Times.
Amazon had already girded itself for a fight with Ms. Khan, having moved in 2021 for her to be recused from F.T.C. antitrust inquiries into the company because of her earlier criticism. (Meta, the parent of Facebook and Instagram, had previously and unsuccessfully sought something similar.)
Still, the F.T.C.’s antitrust bureau has investigated Amazon over its competitive practices for years. And Khan has put the broader ideas behind her law review article into practice as the agency’s chief, leading many in Washington to speculate that a bigger battle with Amazon is a matter of when, not if.
In other news, the F.T.C. and Microsoft will face off in court on Thursday over whether the tech giant’s $69 billion takeover bid for Activision Blizzard should proceed. On the witness list for the proceedings are Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s C.E.O., and Bobby Kotick, Activision’s chief.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
The search for the missing submersible enters a “critical day.” More rescue vessels are poised to join efforts to find the Titan, including a robot capable of reaching the sea floor. Air supplies for the five passengers on board are believed to be close to running out, though some experts say careful breathing may extend that for some time.
Senator Chuck Schumer lays out a path for A.I. regulation. The majority leader called for an approach that prioritizes objectives like accountability, innovation and security, without endorsing any specific proposals. Emphasizing that Congress “must join the A.I. revolution,” Mr. Schumer is hoping that lawmakers can produce a bill within months.
The Senate Banking Committee approves a revamp of banking rules. All but two members of the panel agreed to tougher penalties for the leaders of failed lenders, more oversight of the Fed and other measures proposed in the wake of the regional banking crisis. The bipartisan move will put pressure on House Republicans to adopt similar legislation.
The Bank of England raises rates by more than expected. The central bank on Thursday increased rates by 0.5 percentage points, defying predictions that it would opt for a quarter-point rise. The decision was announced a day after the latest data showed that headline inflation in Britain was stuck at 8.7 percent in May, higher than economists had forecast.
‘A long way’ from Powell’s liking
Stocks appear headed for their fourth consecutive day of losses as investors worry that persistent inflation will pressure the Fed to raise interest rates not once, but twice more this year, risking a hit to the economy.
But not all is dreary in the markets, with the price of Bitcoin surging on hopes that the cryptocurrency may soon go mainstream, after a regulatory crackdown on some of the crypto industry’s largest exchanges.
Investors are coming around to the idea of prolonged higher rates. Testifying before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, Jay Powell, the Fed chair, said that more increases to the prime lending rate may be needed to discourage spending by businesses and consumers.
“Inflation pressures continue to run high, and the process of getting inflation back down to 2 percent has a long way to go,” Mr. Powell told lawmakers.
That assessment is driving pessimism in the markets. Stocks fell, particularly tech shares that only a few weeks ago propelled the S&P 500 into a bull market on hopes that the Fed was nearly done tightening rates.
Meanwhile, bearish investors are increasingly betting that stock prices will go down. And economists are worried about the consequences of ending a pause on federal student loan repayments.
Bucking the gloom is … Bitcoin, which jumped above $30,000 on Thursday morning. Behind its rally is hope that regulators will finally accept the cryptocurrency into Main Street finance: Its price has jumped more than 20 percent over the past week, ever since BlackRock filed with the S.E.C. to run a spot Bitcoin exchange-traded fund. Shortly after, rival money managers followed suit. Another vote of confidence came from Mr. Powell himself, who said on Wednesday that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have “staying power.”
The S.E.C. hasn’t approved any spot Bitcoin E.T.F. applications before, worrying that such investment products would be vulnerable to fraud and wild market swings. But Bitcoin enthusiasts are hoping that BlackRock — the world’s biggest manager of E.T.F.s, with plenty of influence in Washington — can change that.
“The likely assumption is that BlackRock may know something,” Nate Geraci, the president of the advisory firm The ETF Store, told Bloomberg.
The U.S. opens a new front in its fight with China
As the Biden administration seeks to check China’s technological expansion in the name of national security, it is looking into a new area of concern, The Times’s David McCabe reports: cloud computing.
The move may further complicate the digital cold war between the two countries, as American officials send mixed signals about how they want to deal with Beijing.
The White House is studying potential limits on Chinese cloud providers when they operate in the United States, and have discussed ways to restrict their growth abroad. As part of that effort, officials have spoken with American tech giants like Microsoft and Alphabet about how their Chinese peers like Alibaba and Huawei operate.
Behind the move is concern that Beijing could use data centers in the U.S. and abroad to get access to sensitive data. Similar worries underlie American efforts to contain Chinese telecom companies and TikTok, the video app. Chinese companies account for a tiny fraction of cloud services in the U.S., but have been making inroads in Asia and Latin America.
Among the steps the White House is weighing are tightening Commerce Department rules for Chinese cloud companies and talking to foreign governments about the issue. The Biden administration is also studying ways to help American cloud providers compete with Chinese rivals that, backed by government subsidies, could undercut them on pricing.
The potential cloud fight may only complicate U.S.-China ties, which have zigzagged in recent days. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing was meant to stabilize relations and produced positive noises from both sides, but the Chinese government bristled at remarks by President Biden on Tuesday likening President Xi Jinping to a dictator.
“It used to be you’d say someone is an investment banker, and that was a big deal. Now it’s like meh. … If I had to pick my favorite buyers, it would be big-time lawyers.”
— Lisa Lippman, a Manhattan real estate broker, on an apparent power shift on Wall Street: Bankers are no longer the top moneymakers.
Why antitrust cops may fight for wealthy golfers
As the Justice Department scrutinizes the potential merger of the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf for antitrust concerns, a common question has been asked among deal watchers: Will the government really defend millionaire golfers who would be affected by the move?
The answer, DealBook hears: quite possibly — and there’s a legal reason for that.
The Justice Department under President Biden is focused on labor issues. The agency’s antitrust division cited them as a rationale for its successful effort to block Penguin Random House’s takeover bid for Simon & Schuster, saying that deal would have reduced author compensation. Labor concerns are also at the heart of the department’s existing investigation into the PGA Tour.
The department is looking to build up case law on the impact of deals on labor. While the “efficiencies” that companies tout as a benefit of mergers often translates to “fewer employees,” it’s difficult to pin those job cuts directly on takeovers.
But it’s easier to demonstrate a deal’s effect on labor in specialized industries like sports, where athletes don’t have many options on where they can work. Any work the Justice Department does here could then lay the groundwork for opposing deals in other areas, including entertainment, hospitals and media.
The politics of this now favor regulators. When the F.T.C. investigated the PGA Tour in the 1990s, several lawmakers wrote to the department defending the organization, and the inquiry fizzled out.
But the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the PGA-LIV deal changes the calculus in Washington. In scheduling a hearing on the potential deal, Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic chair of a Senate panel looking into the matter, cited concerns about “what the Saudi takeover means for the future of this cherished American institution and our national interest.”
THE SPEED READ
Best of the rest
A first look at “Dumb Money,” the forthcoming movie about the GameStop trading frenzy that features Paul Dano as Keith “Roaring Kitty” Gill, Seth Rogen as Gabe Plotkin and Vincent D’Onofrio as Steve Cohen. (Vanity Fair)
How Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were drawn into efforts to protect Turner Classic Movies amid a potential reorganization by its parent, Warner Bros. Discovery. (Hollywood Reporter)
Will Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg actually step into the octagon? (CNBC)
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