FTC Chair Lina Khan looks for allies and leads in Silicon Valley charm offensive

FILE PHOTO: House Judiciary Committee holds oversight hearing on the Federal Trade Commission on Capitol Hill in Washington

By Krystal Hu and Greg Bensinger

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan found some cozy company over the course of a two-day trip through Silicon Valley this week as she looked to reverse her reputation for being a scourge of Big Tech.

In her first trip to the tech hub home to giants and startups in her role, Khan had a key message for Silicon Valley across talks, dinner and events all over the Bay Area: She's a friend to entrepreneurs and founders.

"I think it's really important for D.C. to begin engaging directly with the founders with startups, and getting a better sense of what are the risks you see," Kahn said at startup accelerator Y Combinator on Friday.

The high-profile effort to engage with the tech community marks a shift in Khan's outreach strategy. She made a similar, but more low-key attempt in New York in June, meeting a small group of venture capital investors and speaking about tech regulations at a local bookstore.

Surrounded by tech workers and VC investors in San Francisco, Khan reiterated her focus on artificial intelligence, an area her agency has been tasked with looking into by President Joe Biden's executive order this week.

"I think there are very reasonable concerns right now that the critical inputs into this technology may already be kind of controlled by a handful of companies, and that we may already be seeing bottlenecks in ways that could impede innovation and competition," Khan said, noting the agency is look at all layers from graphics processing units, cloud computing to data used by AI models.

At a Mission District cafe on Thursday where about half the room raised their hands to identify as workers for Big Tech companies, Khan was greeted with applause and scattered cheers for a fireside chat.

Just hours earlier at Stanford University, a man who said he'd worked for Meta said he “was a big fan, even at Meta, of what you did to my boss." It was an apparent reference to the agency’s suit attempting to block the company’s acquisition of Within Limited, an AI startup.

Even as the FTC was preparing to send a letter to a Republican lawmaker on Friday defending its hard line on what it views as unlawful mergers, including Microsoft's now-closed $69 billion purchase of Activision, Khan took pains to appear to be a friend to industry workers.

"We’re very much focused on using our laws to protect everybody: Consumers, but also workers," she said in a standing-room-only nightcap appearance in San Francisco on Thursday. "The FTC’s goals are entirely aligned with innovators and entrepreneurs."

Big Tech companies, particularly Amazon and Meta, view Khan, who rose to prominence after publishing a 2017 academic article pointing to Amazon’s practices as anticompetitive, as an impediment.

Both companies sought shortly after her taking the job to have her recuse herself from any antitrust investigations into its practices, indicating in filings at the time they did not view her as impartial.

(Reporting by Krystal Hu and Greg Bensinger in San Francisco; Editing by Jamie Freed)