Hillicon Valley — Biden celebrates 'right to repair' wins
GOP resistance to Biden FCC nominee could endanger board's Democratic majority
Republicans pushed back on President Biden's nominee to join the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Gigi Sohn, at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday over past comments she's made regarding conservative media - resistance that could put her nomination in danger.
"All who know her would agree she is knowledgeable and a determined advocate," ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in his opening statement about Sohn. "I am concerned about her record of expressing hyper-partisan views on many critical matters that have come before the commission and which may come before the commission again in the future."
In the past, Biden's nominees to other critical roles overseeing aspects of the tech industry, including Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Lina Khan and Justice Department antitrust division head Jonathan Katner, have been confirmed without significant backlash from the GOP.
The Senate Commerce Committee advanced acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel's nomination by a voice vote with just a handful of Republicans recording themselves as a "no" toward her nomination. The committee also voted 14-14 Wednesday to advance Biden's nominee to fill an open FTC seat, Alvaro Bedoya, to a full Senate vote.
The GOP resistance to Sohn could throw a wrench into her nomination and Democrats' ability to secure a majority on the board. It would also hinder Rosenworcel's ability to get Democrats' agenda through, including reviving Obama-era net neutrality laws.
The FCC is split 2-2 along party lines until the vacant seat is filled.
Senate Democrats could overcome all Republicans voting against Sohn, but could not afford any defections to approve her nomination.
Sohn has a history of advocating for open and affordable communications networks. She is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. Between 2003 and 2016, Sohn served as a counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
If confirmed, she would also be the first openly LGBTQ commissioner in the history of the agency.
"I've been asked why after a long career I would want a seat on the FCC. My answer is simple - if confirmed I would be serving on the commission at a critical time for our country. Thanks to the work of Congress over the past year, there are ample resources and bipartisan support to make enormous progress in closing the digital divide in both rural and urban areas," Sohn said.
"It would be the honor of a lifetime to help the FCC and Congress attain that goal," she added.
Republicans on the panel, however, pressed Sohn over comments she made during her years in public advocacy.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Sohn about comments she made in the past about Fox News, including a tweet from last year where she called Fox News "state-sponsored propaganda."
"For all my concerns about #Facebook, I believe that Fox News has had the most negative impact on our democracy. It's state-sponsored propaganda, with few if any opposing viewpoints. Where's the hearing about that?" she tweeted at the time.
"This goes directly to the power you're going to have, this is not some kind of random tweet," Sullivan said. "You are clearly indicating your bias against more conservative news sources, and yet you are now up for confirmation at one of the most powerful positions in America on free speech? I think that disqualifies you completely," he added.
Sohn responded that the comments she tweeted were made in the context of a hearing that took place about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a controversial provision which provides a liability shield for tech companies over content posted on their sites by third parties.
Republicans at the time claimed that social media companies censor with an anticonservative bias.
"As a public interest advocate, as part of my job, those were my words, those were my opinions, but they would have no bearing on how I would act if I was confirmed as an FCC commissioner," Sohn said.
Sohn told the panel she is working with the Office of Government Ethics, adding that if there are concerns about bias, she will consult with the agency to see if she needs to recuse herself from any matters should she be confirmed as commissioner.
The opposition from the GOP comes after Republican lawmakers indicated in recent weeks that they were unhappy with Sohn's nomination.
Outside of the Senate, Sohn's support - or lack thereof - has been a mixed bag from both parties.
Republicans have criticized her past comments about Fox News, but conservative networks like Newsmax and One America News Network have thrown their support behind the Biden nominee.
"Freedom of speech is the lifeblood of our American experience and has always been at the core of my work. I am proud that some of the most conservative television networks are supporting my confirmation, because I worked with them for years to get access to cable subscribers after operators refused to carry them. I have also worked with communities of color and the LGBTQ-plus community to ensure access to their voices on different platforms without interference. I've always believed that democracy works best when voices of all kinds can speak and be heard," Sohn said during the hearing.
Meanwhile, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sent a letter to top Commerce Committee senators urging them to oppose Sohn's nomination over her past actions the group said supported large technology companies in ways that harmed hundreds of small, independent, Latino-owned media companies.
For their part, Democrats on the panel lauded Sohn's career and expertise in the area to fill the role on the commission.
"She has a decade long of experience as advocating on important telecommunications policies," committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said.
Updated 7:55 p.m.