Casting aside concerns about conflicts of interest, the Senate on Thursday unanimously confirmed Jonathan Kanter, an industry critic who has tangled with big tech companies, as the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division.
Kanter, 49, previously served as an antitrust adviser to President Barack Obama, when the Justice Department joined Google’s legal fight against Oracle over Android, which powers the vast majority of smartphones sold in the U.S.
Kanter’s nomination was championed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate minority leader, who has been an unrelenting critic of big tech, which makes up the dominant players in social media, cloud computing, advertising and commerce.
The first witness who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month criticized Kanter as “a little warm and fuzzy” in his interactions with big tech companies. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, said Kanter’s testimony suggested the new antitrust chief “does not see the direct and obvious conflict of interest” between his private companies and those of the government.
But Kanter received support from other antitrust experts. Michael Carrier, a Rutgers University economics professor, called Kanter “the only person I know of who combines two potentially conflicting private interests: work as an advocate for fair competition in private practice, and work for public officials who regulate that industry, like the Justice Department.”
Kanter previously served as a member of the Obama administration’s Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the National Economic Council. In his last year at NSC, Kanter was a co-writer of President Obama’s 2015 statement declaring that China is now a global economic power and urged Congress to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement.
As an antitrust adviser in the White House, Kanter encountered numerous disputes with companies who’d made alleged antitrust violations. He authored an op-ed last year arguing the Justice Department should take a more aggressive approach to deal with Google over Android. He and other consumer advocates faulted Google for favoring its own apps in search results and on mobile apps.
Kanter began working for Google on the inaugural Google Consumer Privacy Project and later became an adviser to the business affairs and strategic communications team. He left Google to co-found consumer advocate Sunlight Labs in 2017. The startup works to add data from smartphone cameras to products that aim to help consumers find useful information on their digital devices.
The Commerce Department’s Industrial Control Systems Security Regulatory Programs Office, which Kanter will lead, is part of the Antitrust Division. It oversees products that include major pieces of U.S. defense infrastructure, like air traffic control and reactor control.
Although the Commerce and Antitrust departments also work closely together, Kanter’s confirmation was seen by some as a sign that the new Trump administration is trying to build a team of tech-neutral regulators. Trump has sparred with the tech sector frequently, most recently with his apparent threats of tariffs on Chinese imports.
To be sure, other judges and agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, already hold extensive experience in tech industry. Senior FTC lawyer Michael Padden is a past general counsel at Google and Oracle.