Internet influence from inside and out

Internet influence from inside and out
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A longtime fighter for rules to prevent big companies from abusing online consumers is helping to lay the groundwork to regulate the Internet like a public utility.

After decades fighting from the outside, Gigi Sohn has spent the last year and a half as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler’s special counsel for external affairs. From the inside, Sohn has argued for tough regulations and opened up the organization to new voices and activists who helped drive in nearly 4 million public comments on a draft version of the rules last year.

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If the FCC adopts tough new rules to reclassify Internet service and treat it like a utility during its meeting next month, Sohn will be at least partly responsible.

“By bringing in the Internet startup people and exposing the chairman to a lot of different views from outside the Beltway, I think she did a lot to build the foundation that is culminating now in a likely Title II decision,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge. Title II of the 1934 Communications Act outlines rules for regulating utilities such as phone lines, formally known as “common carriers.”

After leading the now-defunct Media Access Project and co-founding Feld’s nonpartisan advocacy group in 2001, Sohn was hired to join the FCC in November of 2013, immediately after Wheeler was confirmed to lead the agency. The pick raised eyebrows across Washington; Sohn had been a frequent critic of previous FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Sohn’s hiring was seen by some as an attempt to counteract the perception among activists that Wheeler — a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist — is beholden to his old employers.

Wheeler is also a history buff who has written a book about leadership lessons from the Civil War and has openly admired President Lincoln’s “team of rivals” approach to decision-making.

“When talking about a number of policy issues, he wants to have a very fulsome debate,” said one FCC official.

In the 14 months since she joined the FCC, Sohn has helped lead outreach to new corners of the country, whether via Twitter or through appeals to interest groups far outside the Capital Beltway.

The position she has created for herself is unlike anything previously seen at the FCC.

“It’s important to people to be able to tell their story,” said a senior FCC official. “It’s important to people to feel like someone is hearing their story.”

“And that, I think, is one of the lessons of the 4 million comments we got on the open Internet proceeding,” the second official added, referring to the record-setting public backlash to draft net neutrality rules released last May.

Julie Samuels, who vouches for startup tech companies as executive director of the Engine advocacy group, said that Sohn’s presence has been has crucial for her sector of the industry.

“Gigi is always talking to people in our community,” she said. “It’s nice to know that Gigi knows where we’re coming from and understands that.”

Some critics of the way Wheeler has run the FCC have taken issue with her presence, however, along with other advocates they view as having come to the commission with preconceived agendas.

“It doesn’t create the appearance of dispassionate decision-making,” said Lawrence Spiwak, head of the Phoenix Center, a think tank.

Through a spokesman, Sohn declined to speak with The Hill for this story.

The fight over net neutrality rules, by far the highest-profile issue the FCC has tackled in years, has put Sohn in an awkward position.

When the FCC in 2010 issued net neutrality regulations that refrained from reclassifying the Web as a public utility, Sohn criticized the move as a “very leaky ship” that would not survive in court.

As she predicted, the 2010 rules were tossed out by a federal appeals court almost exactly one year ago. Since then, agency officials have been hard at work writing new regulations meant to guarantee all Internet users equal access to the Internet, no matter which provider they use or which websites they visit.

Draft rules released last May were criticized for being too weak and opening the door to “toll roads” on the Internet, which would allow a service provider like Comcast to charge someone like Netflix for quicker access to users.

President Obama, in an announcement just days after the November midterm elections, called for the FCC to take the bolder step and reclassify Web service, as Sohn had previously pushed the FCC to do.

While no official can rival the president in terms of political influence, Sohn’s early work to engage the public helped nudge Wheeler toward considering the possibility of reclassification.

“Before the direct intervention of the president, it is clear that Wheeler was willing to think of Title II as part of a hybrid solution, but wasn’t willing to go all the way,” said Feld, of Public Knowledge. “I do think that Gigi was very important in the education process at the FCC to get them up to the hybrid point.”

Many Republicans and cable companies who oppose reclassification of Internet service say that it would lead to over-regulation of the Web that would prevent companies from thriving online.  

In a commencement address at the University of California-Berkeley last spring, Sohn called the debate “an extreme test of my ability to serve the public from the inside” that is emblematic of the fine line officials often have to walk when moving from an advocacy group to a government role that has to juggle multiple perspectives.

While she maintained, “you don’t have to stop being an advocate when you join the government,” Sohn also described her evolution toward seeing seemingly “no-brainer” concepts as “thorny, multi-faceted problems without easy solutions.”

“It’s safe to say that whatever her agenda might’ve been before she got the job, her agenda in the job has been to push what the chairman wants to do,” echoed Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, another advocacy group that has often called for tough regulations. 

But there’s little doubt that her voice is having some impact on Wheeler ahead of the late February vote on new Web rules.

“Has it been effective?” Aaron asked. “Ask me on Feb. 26.”