The White House said Tuesday it would nominate Jonathan Kanter as the top antitrust officer at the Justice Department, a move that would add a new critic of Big Tech and corporate concentration to a powerful regulatory position.
President Biden’s plan to appoint Mr. Kanter, an antitrust lawyer who has made a career out of representing rivals to US tech giants such as Google and Facebook, shows how strongly the administration is siding with the growing field of lawmakers, researchers and regulators who say that Silicon Valley has gained enormous power over the way Americans talk to each other, buy products online, and consume news.
Mr. Biden has appointed other critics of Big Tech in prominent roles, such as Lina Khan, an Amazon critic, to head the Federal Trade Commission. Tim Wu, another legal scholar who says regulators should tackle the tech giants, has an economic policy role in the White House. And this month, Mr. Biden signed a sweeping executive order aimed at increasing competition across the economy and limiting corporate dominance.
Mr. Kanter, 47, is the founder of Kanter Law Group, which considers itself an “antitrust advocacy boutique” online. He previously worked at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. His services have attracted some of the most prominent critics of Big Tech in corporate America, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Microsoft, as well as upstarts like Spotify and Yelp.
If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Kanter will head a Department of the Justice Department that filed a lawsuit last year alleging Google had illegally protected its monopoly on online search services. The agency’s antitrust department has also raised questions about Apple’s business practices.
It took the White House more than six months after Mr. Biden’s swearing in to land on Mr. Kanter. The government 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 immediately gained the approval of policymakers and advocacy groups leading the charge for stricter enforcement of the antitrust laws.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, called Mr. Kanter “an excellent choice,” citing his “deep legal experience and history of advocating aggressive action.”
Sarah Miller, the executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, a progressive advocacy group, said in a statement that “President Biden made an excellent choice to head the DOJ’s antitrust division,” noting that Mr. Kanter had “devoted his career to reviving antitrust enforcement.”
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, calling him a ” serious lawyer” in the private sector and experience in government.
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The announcement may not be embraced as warmly by Wall Street dealmakers who have helped push mergers and acquisitions to record levels, fueled in part by a buoyant stock market.
Washington’s control over acquisitions has expanded beyond just the headlines of Big Tech deals to sectors such as consumer goods, agriculture, insurance and healthcare.
The Justice Department has filed suit against the proposed merger of Aon and Willis Towers Watson, the first major antitrust action since Biden took office. The FTC announced in March that it was forming a group to “update” its approach to evaluating the impact of pharmaceutical deals, an industry generally under its purview. That followed a report led by Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat, that scrutinized deals in the industry.
In recent years, Mr. Kanter built an unusual practice by criticizing the tech giants from within Washington law firms. The tech giants have become lucrative clients for major law firms, often making it difficult for those firms to work for their adversaries.
But last year he left Paul, Weiss — an elite litigation firm — because his portfolio representing critics of the tech giants conflicted with other work the company was doing.
“Jonathan made this decision because of a complicated legal conflict that had forced him to end important and long-standing representations and relationships with customers,” the company said at the time.
Mr. Kanter’s critics are likely to wonder if his past work is a conflict of interest that should keep him from investigating the tech giants. Both Facebook and Amazon have asked Ms. Khan to abstain from business involving the companies in the FTC, even though her background is as a lawyer and not a paid representative for their rivals.
When asked whether Mr. Kanter would withdraw from cases involving Google and Apple, a White House official simply said the administration was confident it could go through with his nomination, given his expertise and track record.
Even if Mr Kanter has the votes to be confirmed, it will likely be months before he takes over from the Justice Department. Congress is taking a long hiatus in August — which could push its confirmation past Labor Day.
Cecilia Kango reporting contributed.