No honest case against stalled Biden FCC nominee
More than a year into the Biden administration, the FCC remains deadlocked in a 2-2 partisan split due to a vacant commissioner’s seat. This vacancy has impacted the Commission’s ability to tackle issues like expanding broadband into underserved and rural communities or restoring net neutrality rules.
President Biden’s nominee to this seat, Public Knowledge co-founder Gigi Sohn, could break this deadlock. The only issue? Her nomination remains stuck in the Senate nearly six months after being announced. Simply put, Sohn’s nomination is in jeopardy precisely because of the fact that she would be a good public servant. And because of that, corporations are orchestrating a concerted smear campaign.
When Biden nominated Sohn last October, he praised her longtime advocacy, remarking that she “has worked to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open, and protective of user privacy.” In her decades-long career, Sohn has worked as a counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, CEO of a leading consumer advocacy nonprofit, and public interest lawyer. She is well-known for her support of net neutrality, having helped Wheeler draft the FCC’s landmark 2015 rules preventing internet service providers from selectively blocking or slowing down access to websites. Sohn has also been a longtime champion for universal broadband access and for protecting consumers’ online privacy rights. Accordingly, Sohn has garnered support from a broad coalition of progressive organizations, consumer watchdogs, privacy advocates, and even some industry groups.
However, corporate America is fighting hard to prevent Sohn’s confirmation. The Chamber of Commerce, whose board members include AT&T, has publicly called on the Senate Commerce Committee to reject Sohn’s nomination due to her support for net neutrality and stronger antitrust enforcement. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, one of the loudest pro-corporate voices in media, has called Sohn the “next Biden nominee who deserves to be defeated.”
The Chamber and Journal, for their part, both peddle a tired neoliberal ideology that has been a failure in practice: America has more expensive fixed line broadband than peer nations thanks to telecom industry consolidation, ISPs have been repeatedly caught throttling consumers’ access to competitors’ services, and Big Telecom firms are among American consumers’ most hated companies.
Corporate interests have also turned to unexpected allies in an attempt to create the illusion of opposition on the left. The League of United Latin American Citizens, which had urged Biden to choose a Hispanic nominee for the FCC, has opposed Sohn by claiming her track record did not adequately support “diverse creators.”
LULAC’s case against Sohn, as Techdirt’s Karl Bode points out, echoes a misleading telecom industry attack on Obama-era cable box competition rules by falsely claiming that content creators would not be compensated for the distribution of their content (in fact, the plan Sohn supported would have made diverse content more accessible, not less). LULAC, it should be noted, is also a major partner of AT&T and has previously parroted the company’s talking points on net neutrality and antitrust, while other Hispanic groups like Fuse Media and the Hispanic Federation have supported Sohn’s nomination.
Finally, One Country Project, a political advocacy group headed by former Democratic Sen.-turned-corporate lobbyist Heidi Heitkamp and staffed by former telecom lobbyists, has launched a $250,000 advertising blitz against Sohn over purported disdain for rural America. None of these complaints are genuine.
As Techdirt notes, Heitkamp’s group has taken Sohn’s views out of context and distorted her criticism of Big Telecom companies failing to use federal funds to adequately invest in high-quality rural or urban broadband service as an “attack on rural Americans.” In reality, Sohn was a key architect of provisions in Biden’s infrastructure bill that would expand public broadband infrastructure and affordability to low-income and rural households. She has been outspoken against laws that prevent rural communities and co-ops from building their own broadband networks to compete with Big Telecom, and has called for better broadband mapping data (a long-time roadblock in rural broadband expansion) to more accurately identify and address broadband needs across the country. If confirmed to the FCC, Sohn would help deploy infrastructure funds earmarked to aid rural broadband development (something Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr has opposed). Contrast Sohn to the Ajit Pai-era Republican FCC, which blocked smaller broadband providers from entering rural markets and left many rural Americans at the mercy of telecom monopolies largely uninterested in serving small towns and farmlands.
Corporate America has even found allies willing to turn Sohn’s nomination into another culture-war battle. Republican senators and media pundits have complained that she has tweeted mean things about Fox News and wants to stifle conservative media’s freedom of speech. Sohn has responded to these criticisms by noting that the FCC does not have oversight over cable networks like Fox News (the agency is prohibited by law from censoring the press) and to the cross-ideological support for her nomination from conservative outlets Newsmax and One America News Network.
A Democratic FCC majority could restore broadband nutrition labels, which would allow consumers to more easily see information about ISPs’ prices, data allowances, and internet speeds before purchasing internet access. Such rules had been in place before they were scuttled in 2017 under Trump. If Democrats were to gain a majority on the commission, they could restore the net neutrality rules that Pai repealed and Commission Republicans have refused to reinstate, and stop Big Telecoms from abusing their power. That means that Sprint could no longer slow traffic to Skype (owned by its competitor Microsoft), or that Verizon would not be allowed to throttle data speeds for first responders. A Democratic FCC could also take a closer look at anti-competitive, anti-consumer telecom mergers, instead of giving them a rubber-stamp as Pai’s FCC did. With Sohn on the FCC, consumers would finally have a regulatory agency that serves them, not Big Telecom.
With limited time before the midterms, now is the time to coalesce around regulators who will regulate. Sohn is here now, ready to serve and with Republican obstruction it is doubtful Biden can get someone else confirmed before the election without them being a corporate crony. For real regulation, it’s likely now or never.
Dylan Gyauch-Lewis is a researcher at the Revolving Door Project.
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