Technology

GOP senators push back at Biden’s FCC nominee during third hearing

This story was updated at 9:54 a.m. Wednesday with a new headline.

Republicans on Tuesday pushed back against President Biden’s nominee for an open seat on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Gigi Sohn, at her third nomination hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. 

Sohn has appeared at two prior hearings to fill the long-vacant fifth seat on the FCC, which oversees interstate and international communications and has been deadlocked with just two Democrats and two Republicans as Democrats try to get her confirmed. 

A lawyer who served as a top aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Sohn has come under fire from senators on the right over her qualifications and alleged conflicts of interest, including comments she made about conservative social media. 

“Ms. Sohn portrays herself as a defender of free speech but has a history of campaigning to censor conservatives. She calls Fox News ‘dangerous to our democracy’ and has urged the FCC to revoke Sinclair’s broadcast licenses,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said. 

“To Ms. Sohn it seems that conservative speech is worse than obscenity,” the senator added.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) latched on to arguments that Sohn leans too far to the left, arguing that a post she’d retweeted characterizing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as an “angry white man” would be unacceptable with “the races reversed.”

Sohn comes under fire for ties to nonprofit Locast

Republicans also criticized Sohn’s ties to Locast, a now-ceased nonprofit streaming service that settled a suit alleging the service infringed on television networks’ copyrights. Sohn has promised to recuse herself from some issues if confirmed.

Democrats, on the other hand, lauded Sohn’s qualifications, highlighting her decades of experience in the telecommunications space. They also stressed the urgent need to fill the open FCC seat to break the party-line deadlock and take action on matters such as the FCC’s broadband maps

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, underscored “the dire need to fill the FCC” and knocked attempts to delay Sohn’s confirmation. 

“It’s been 755 days that we don’t have a fully functioning FCC. … With each additional day, more ink is spilled over this nomination. Frankly, we get more deliberate attempts to extend this vacancy for as long as possible,” Luján said. 

Companies push back against more federal oversight

“Fundamentally, this position remains vacant because the companies that are lawfully subject to oversight by the FCC don’t want a watchdog. They don’t want to be regulated, and these companies have spent an immense amount of money and influence to keep this position vacant,” the New Mexico senator added.  

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the full committee, suggested there’s “probably billions of dollars at stake here” if Sohn expands affordable broadband access throughout the nation, a risk that’s spurring “the vitriol of these attacks” against the nominee.

Sohn said one of her “frustrations” about not having been confirmed yet is a looming June 30 deadline when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will announce state funding allocations based on broadband maps. 

“That’s why time is really of the essence to get me confirmed because if I don’t get confirmed at all, there’s not going to be a fifth person on the FCC in time to do anything about those maps,” Sohn said. 

Sohn was advanced from the Commerce panel last year but was not confirmed by a full Senate vote. 

If she’s confirmed during this third bout of nominating efforts, Sohn would give Democrats a 3-2 majority in the FCC and likely help the Biden administration advance its telecommunications agenda.

Sohn would be first openly LGBTQ commissioner of the FCC

She’d also be the first openly gay FCC commissioner.

Nearly two dozen LGBTQ advocacy organizations sent a letter to Senate leadership earlier this month urging Sohn’s confirmation and pushing back against what they called “homophobic and sexist fear-mongering” hampering the nomination process.

“It is unconscionable that the Senate has failed to confirm someone so qualified and so dedicated to fighting for the public interest, especially at a time when the American people have needed the FCC to get to work,” said nonprofit Fight for the Future campaigns and managing director Caitlin Seeley George in a statement. 

Matt Wood, the nonpartisan advocacy group Free Press Action’s general counsel and vice president of policy, said that “no other nominee in the FCC’s history has had to wait so long for a confirmation vote” and argued confirming Sohn “is the best thing the Senate can do to ensure media, tech and broadband policy actually serves the public.” 

Questions continue about why Sohn’s nomination process has taken so long

Appearing before the Senate committee 15 months after her initial nomination, Sohn said she’s “still Biden’s nominee for the fifth seat in the FCC” because of her dedication to the agency’s mission, her position as a consumer advocate and her “extremely well-qualified” candidate status — but also because she believes “that regulated entities should not choose their regulator.”

“Unfortunately, that is the exact intent of the past 15 months of false and misleading attacks on my record and on my character,” Sohn said.

“My industry opponents have hidden behind dark money groups and surrogates because they fear a pragmatic, pro-competition, pro-consumer policymaker will support policies that will bring more, faster and lower price broadband and new voices to your constituents.”

Tags FCC Federal Communications Commission Gigi Sohn Gigi Sohn JD Vance Joe Biden Maria Cantwell Ted Cruz Tom Wheeler

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