Tech advocates criticize FCC nomination delays

President and CEO of Public Knowledge Gigi Sohn testifies during a hearing before the Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee of Senate Judiciary Committee June 21, 2012.
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President and CEO of Public Knowledge Gigi Sohn testifies during a hearing before the Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee of Senate Judiciary Committee June 21, 2012.

President Biden’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee Gigi Sohn will face questions from a Senate panel once again on Wednesday amid ongoing delays to her confirmation.

Progressive tech advocates are growing increasingly frustrated by the delays, casting blame on the White House and Senate Democratic leadership for stalling and catering to Republicans who they say are raising disingenuous concerns.

As the Senate continues to fight along party lines over Sohn, the FCC hangs in a 2-2 deadlock that limits Democrats’ ability to push forward their agenda, including reinstating net neutrality laws undone during the Trump administration.

“Gigi’s hearing went well. No question that she’s a skilled advocate and witness and public servant, all those things rolled into one. I don’t think there’s any danger from her being up there again. It seems to me like [this hearing is] nothing more than a chance for senators to ask questions that have already been answered or shouldn’t have been raised in the first place,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy at Free Press.

Sohn appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee in December for a hearing on her nomination. The committee failed to advance her to a full Senate vote by the end of 2021, with broad backlash against her from Republican members. Biden renominated her at the start of this year.

Sohn was slated for a vote by the committee last week, but Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) pulled her from the schedule the evening before the planned vote after Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (N.M.) office said the Democrat was recovering from a stroke. His absence would have meant that Republicans could block Sohn’s nomination from advancing if they voted along party lines, given the down-the-middle party split on the committee. 

Advocates said they understand the additional unexpected delay in light of Luján’s absence but are frustrated with Cantwell agreeing to hold another hearing for Sohn rather than just holding off on the vote that was scheduled before Luján’s absence.

Joshua Stager, deputy director for broadband and competition policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in a statement that the hearing is a “profound waste of the Senate’s limited time, and it sets a dangerous precedent for President Biden’s nominees throughout the government.”

“The hearing that Chair Cantwell noticed last night is a gift to AT&T, Comcast, and the other companies that have worked for years to weaken the FCC’s authority and who benefit from a deadlocked agency. There is no legitimate rationale for holding a second hearing about a recusal that both the Office of Government Ethics and the FCC’s general counsel determined was not needed,” Stager said. 

Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer went so far as to request Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) remove Cantwell as chair of the committee. 

“[Cantwell] has repeatedly caved to disingenuous opposition from Republicans and industry lobbyists, leading to inexcusable delays in the confirmation of highly qualified FCC nominee Gigi Sohn. Additionally, her role in securing an unjustified recusal from Ms. Sohn sets a dangerous precedent for President Biden’s nominees across the government,” Greer wrote in a letter to Schumer last week. 

In response to the criticism, Tricia Enright, a spokesperson for Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement, “We all want the same thing and that is for Gigi Sohn to be confirmed as an FCC commissioner.”

The criticism is not limited to Cantwell, however — and it doesn’t only come from progressive advocates, either.

Wood also slammed the White House’s “indecision and delays last year” and Commerce Committee ranking member Roger Wicker’s (R-Miss.) “continued opportunistic nonsense.”

Meanwhile, Incompas, the telecom industry group run by CEO Chip Pickering, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, questioned the necessity of the hearing as well. 

“The need for a hearing didn’t seem obvious to us. She was on the record on these issues,” said Angie Kronenberg, general counsel for Incompas.

During the last hearing, Republicans centered criticism on past comments Sohn made about conservative media outlets, even as networks such as Newsmax and One America News Network actually offered support for her confirmation. 

The criticism is likely to come up again. For example, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted last week, before the nomination vote was pulled, that Sohn was a “radical nominee who was dishonest about her conflicts of interest.” 

Wicker has focused his opposition on Sohn’s ties to Locast, a discontinued nonprofit streaming service that let users view livestreams of television. Sohn served on the board of the nonprofit.

Locast was reportedly ordered by a New York federal court to shut down and pay $32 million to networks including ABC Inc., CBS Corp., NBCUniversal Media, LLC, and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 

But broadcasters agreed to settle for $700,000, Bloomberg Law reported, citing a nonpublic agreement. Sohn reportedly signed the confidential agreement a day after Biden announced her nomination in October.

Sohn also pledged to recuse herself from some broadcast regulatory issues if confirmed by the Senate, Bloomberg reported. She sent a letter to the FCC’s general counsel saying that although not required through her ethics agreement, she would recuse herself to “to avoid any appearance of impropriety and in interest of ensuring that the public has full confidence that policymakers will make decisions free of bias.”

Kronenberg, however, said there’s no precedent for Sohn to recuse herself in the way she’s pledged to do, and that the industry ties of former FCC commissioners weren’t used as sticking points in their confirmations.

“It seems as though when industry has some of their own potential nominees, they don’t call for those kinds of broad recusal. But rather, when it’s a consumer advocate, they are now calling for much broader recusals. So that kind of has us scratching our heads, well if the shoe fits in one circumstance, then why doesn’t it fit in another?” Kronenberg said. 

Wood said the best outcome from the hearing would be if a few Republicans peeled back their opposition, but he isn’t hopeful the hearing will move the needle. 

“I expect [Sohn] to do well, I just don’t know how sincere an audience she is actually getting from the Republican side who called from this hearing,” he said.

Tags Charles Schumer fcc gigi sohn second hearing nominee tech advocates criticize delays Joe Biden Maria Cantwell Marsha Blackburn Roger Wicker
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