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Is Lina Khan’s Attack on Data Companies Friendly Fire or a Trojan Horse?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

The politicians’ need to win hearts and minds doesn’t change, but technology does. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams hired newspapers to bash each other. Warren Harding used the radio. JFK’s handsomeness wasn’t new, but the ability to televise it was. William McKinley came up with mass-produced campaign buttons. William Henry Harrison connected with voters for the first time using the train (but not an umbrella, alas). 


Armed with technology that none of their predecessors could imagine, today’s campaigners can target voters with digital advertising based on search history, language preferences, geolocation, etcetera . One company has even claimed to be able to target the “captive audience” of people in line to vote on election day! 

While campaigns will continue use radio, campaign buttons, and handsomeness, the prominence of digital ads based on hyper-specific data will only increase. In the midterms, campaigns spent $9.7 billion on targeted digital ads. 

Karl Rove and his team were masters of rudimentary micro-targeting back in The Day, but Democrats have won the digital arms race of the last few cycles. 

Last year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent more money on its grassroots organizing than television advertising for the first time in its history. Democrats outspent Republicans four-to-one on Facebook and Instagram ads last fall, targeting ads based on their tastes in music, sports, shopping, and other habits. This helps Democrats’ success with early in-person and mail votes: 52 percent to 39 percent. 

(This data has to be amazing. People certainly can’t be voting for Democrats because of their record the last two years.) 


So why then is one of the Democrats’ most zealous acolytes attacking this industry? 

In August, the Federal Trade Commission under Chair Lina Khan filed a lawsuit against Idaho-based tech company Kochava, claiming they were selling sensitive geolocation data that might violate their privacy. Kochava has a long history of helping Democrat campaigns. 

Now, the FTC didn’t define the meaning of “sensitive locations.” Does that mean a doctor’s office? The bathroom

While the data privacy landscape seems complicated, the regulatory reality isn’t. No current federal legislation addresses mobile geolocation data – though some states have – leaving individual companies to define privacy guidelines themselves while trying to stay out of the FTC’s crosshairs. 

With Khan’s track record of legal and regulatory over-reach, her behavior shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. She became a darling of so-called progressives as a law student for her article arguing the government must use excessive antitrust force against Amazon. She wants to punish big companies for the crime of being big, whether we’re talking about pharmaceuticals or virtual reality

Khan recklessly uses regulations and frivolous litigation to achieve political ends that should be proposed through the legislative process. On geolocation, Khan recently pronounced that “there are certain types of data collected and sold that is going to be unlawful” which seems like a heckuva promise from someone who is not a lawmaker. 


Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are, and they realize that Khan shouldn’t try to steal their jobs. They’re right: any national policy regarding geolocation and data sharing should come from Congress. 

Democrats side-stepping elections to score a victory is nothing new – even the sainted RBG knew Roe v. Wade was incorrect. But this must be the first time Democrats have done so in way that hurts their ability to win elections. 

This might not be friendly fire, however. Khan isn’t stupid. This over-reach might instead be a Trojan horse, where the regulatory state gets its way into a space where Democrats currently have an edge, then makes sure – under the weight of law – that it always stays that way. 

When the Internet was still young and wild and free, we decided that we wanted it to stay free. Consumers decided we were not going to pay for it, meaning someone else had to: advertisers. It started with simple banner ads and pop-ups that late-night hosts made fun of, because we mostly only clicked on them by accident, but it’s nothing so simple these days. 

Now thanks to social media, we voluntarily give up the kind of data that must have been very difficult for Don Draper to get for Richard Nixon’s campaign. We don’t pay Google Maps to find the nearest pizza place, because pizza places pay Google Maps to find us.Remember, where “free” online services are concerned, we are the product not their customer. 


Given the stakes, it’s odd that it took so long for elections to exploit this the way they do now. Let’s just hope that when so-called progressives are done “fundamentally transforming” our country, there are still elections in the future. 

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