Head of consumer group takes on FCC's net neutrality plan

Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn would be the first to tell you that she likes Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

His wedding, she said, was “one of the best I’ve ever been to.”

But in spite of her friendship with Genachowski (she actually introduced him to his wife, Rachel), Sohn has been a vocal critic of his policies from her perch at Public Knowledge, one of the nation’s leading telecom consumer groups.

Her organization came out in force last week against the chairman’s net-neutrality proposal, which the FCC’s commissioners will vote on next week.

Sohn said she will oppose the plan unless it is strengthened — a decision that could help sink the top agenda item of Genachowski’s term and potentially obliterate his legacy as chairman.

After nearly two decades in Washington, Sohn walks a fine line between insider and watchdog.

She has personal relationships with power players all over the capital, from the Federal Trade Commission to Congress, and throws yearly parties to bring them all together.

And sometimes, she says, she has to tell her friends they are bad at their jobs.

“It’s people I have dinner parties with,” Sohn said. “I’m in a position of being both friend and critic, and it’s a position I’m finding myself more and more often in lately.”

She said her relationships can be a professional asset — but they can also make matters complicated.

“It comes with trepidation: What if I have to criticize that person?” she said.

It was her organization’s legal director, Harold Feld, who penned a notorious essay urging the chairman of the FCC to locate his “man pants” and take action on various consumer issues.

The criticism came to epitomize the frustrations of consumer groups. Genachowski joked in a self-deprecating speech last week that his wife gave him “man pants” for Hanukkah.


(Sohn confesses a tendency to micromanage, but Feld said the man-pants lingo was all his own. “I do not recall running ‘man pants’ by her,” he said.)

As Sohn’s influence in Washington has grown over the last two decades, she has not tempered her advocacy.

After serving on President Obama’s advisory group on telecom issues, she made a conscious decision not to bite her tongue.

“Right after Obama had been elected, one of my board members asked me, ‘What do you want Public Knowledge’s role with the new president [to be]?’ ” she said.

Sohn told the board member, “Trusted adviser.” 


“He said, ‘No, that’s not what you want to be. You want to be the person who tells them the truth — the way that things should be,’ ” she recalls. “And he was absolutely right.”

Sohn grew up on Long Island playing a laundry list of sports and says she has always been outgoing. Her social flair has charmed even her ideological adversaries.

“My relationship with Gigi embodies what is unique about Washington, D.C.,” said Kyle McSlarrow, the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. “You can battle it out with a group of people or person and yet really develop a friendship.”

McSlarrow, who has been a key leader on the opposite side of the net-neutrality debate, said Sohn is willing to listen to the other perspectives and talk things over in a constructive way.
“A lot of people take themselves too seriously, but Gigi has a sense of humor,” he said.

Rhetoric in the net-neutrality fight often pivots between the mean-spirited and the ridiculous. But don’t expect to see Sohn handing out breakfasts outside a government building to suggest that policymakers are “waffling” on their positions — as Free Press did earlier this year.

“This has been a particularly difficult issue because it has been made into a rallying call for all kinds of things the definition of which may or may not be net neutrality,” said Kathy Brown, a senior vice president for policy at Verizon.

“But Gigi’s one to pick up the phone and say, ‘I want to discuss this,’ ” Brown said.

Sohn doesn’t hold it against other groups that they take a different approach.

“The public interest community is a big tent,” Sohn said.

“To the extent they make us appear moderate, that’s fine with me,” she added.

Sohn has also shown a willingness to compromise at times, observers said.

Apparently, lawmakers have noticed. Outgoing House Communications subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) called Sohn the “best public advocate I have ever known.” He commended her substance and said he considers her a trusted adviser.

Sohn experimented with compromise in a significant way earlier this year when she agreed to support a net-neutrality bill drafted by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — even though it lacked all the provisions she wanted.

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“We really put our reputation on the line supporting that Waxman proposal,” she said.

Now the bill is the basis of a proposal at the FCC — possibly the last chance this chairman has to fulfill an Obama campaign promise to pass net-neutrality rules.

But this time, Sohn has said, she won’t support it unless Genachowski strengthens the framework.

It’s unclear whether taking a tough line will work or if the FCC will wind up not passing any consumer protections at all.

Sohn seems comfortable with the gamble.

“We put ourselves out there to help the FCC and to help this chairman,” she said. “We hope he remembers that when he gets working on this proposal.”