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Biden's FCC pick will be instrumental in net neutrality fight

Gigi Sohn, a longtime consumer advocate and former FCC official, faced Republican opposition at her Senate confirmation hearing.

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Gigi Sohn.

Andrew Harrer/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn, President Joe Biden's pick to fill the vacant seat on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, had her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, paving the way for the restoration of Obama-era net neutrality protections. 

While Biden's choice to lead the agency, Jessica Rosenworcel, has gotten bipartisan support (her nomination advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday and now heads to the full Senate for a vote), Sohn has attracted opposition from some Republicans, who've painted her as an extreme partisan. Sohn, who co-founded the public interest group Public Knowledge and advised former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, has been a longtime supporter of net neutrality rules, privacy protections and diversity in media ownership. 

During the Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, several Republican senators took her to task for statements she's made on Twitter, including a 2018 tweet in which she questioned whether Sinclair Broadcast Group should have a broadcast license, and another tweet in 2020 in which she called Fox News "state-sponsored propaganda."

"So I've got a list of comments here about Fox News," Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri said during the hearing. "Are you biased against them?"

"So you're referring to my tweets that are now pretty famous," Sohn answered. "I understand they're concerning to some. And anyone who knows me knows I'm pretty direct. But they were made in my role as a public interest advocate."

She tried to reassure the committee she would be fair.

"My opinions as a public interest advocate will have no bearing on how I behave as a policymaker if I'm confirmed," she said. 

"I've been in government before and the values that are important to being a policymaker -- responsiveness, transparency, integrity -- that's what you'll get from me if I'm confirmed," she continued. "So yes, I said some things, maybe too sharp, but they will have absolutely no determination in how I would rule on a proceeding with any of those companies."

The next chapter of net neutrality 

The FCC has been split 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans since Biden took office in January, which has left the agency unable to act on Democrats' agenda to bring back net neutrality. If both Rosenworcel and Sohn are confirmed by the full Senate, Democrats will have their majority and will be poised to fulfill Biden's promise to get net neutrality regulations back on the books. In July, he issued an executive order urging the FCC to restore the Obama-era rules and to take other measures to promote broadband competition, including asking the agency to require broadband companies to provide transparency on pricing. 

Restoring net neutrality rules that Republicans dismantled in 2017 is likely to be the No. 1 priority on Democrats' agenda. But the question remains how far the agency will go in terms of reestablishing the rules. 

The agency may simply reinstate the 2015 rules Sohn helped draft. Those rules would require internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, to treat all internet traffic equally and bar them from offering "fast lanes" where some companies could pay for their customers to access sites and services faster than via their competitors. The rules also reclassified broadband as a so-called Title II service under the Communications Act, which gave the FCC the power to regulate broadband.

But critics of Sohn worry she'll push for broader changes, such as rate regulation. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi and the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, emphasized this concern and said he prefers a light-touch approach to regulation.

Sohn said she agrees that "light touch is better." But she added that since the repeal of net neutrality in 2017 the FCC has had no authority over broadband. And that's a problem.

"What I'm concerned about … is that we have no touch," she said. She added that the net neutrality debate of today is not just about preventing internet service providers from blocking and throttling access to content.

"It's about whether broadband, which we all agree is an essential service, should have some government oversight," she said. "And right now it doesn't."

But when it comes to concerns that Sohn would push for the FCC to set broadband prices, she gave a clear answer. 

"No. That's an easy one," she said in response to a question from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, about whether she'd support rate regulation. 

Still, Sohn's long history as an advocate and her position as a founder of Public Knowledge, which pushed for greater FCC authority, has caused concern among Republicans. When she was first nominated, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, tweeted, "I will do everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee." 

He called Sohn "a complete political ideologue who has disdain for conservatives. She would be a complete nightmare for the country when it comes to regulating the public airwaves."

The Wall Street Journal's editorial board last month said Sohn would use the FCC's regulatory power "to shackle broadband providers and silence conservative voices."

But some conservative broadcasters have defended her. Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy put out a statement saying he supported both of Biden's nominees for the FCC. One America News Network president Charles Herring also endorsed Sohn.

"While I don't always agree with the nominees on many policy matters, Newsmax fully supports the Commission's mandate to promote diversity, localism and competition in the marketplace," he said. "Newsmax believes both nominees are committed to that mandate."

Ruddy's endorsement seemed to have some sway with Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, who said he's concerned Sohn's record suggests she has a "deep antipathy to those with different views." Cruz said he had a conversation with Ruddy, who reiterated to him that Sohn has been an advocate for additional voices.

"That's an encouraging sign," he said. "I was comforted by what Mr. Ruddy had to say." 

Sohn said she believes she's "been characterized very unfairly as being anti conservative speech. My record says otherwise."

It's a sentiment others who've worked with Sohn have also expressed. 

"I think there's this mischaracterization of Gigi," said Greg Guice, Public Knowledge's director of government affairs. Guice said he's known Sohn for 18 years. "She is oriented towards advocating for good policy. She has a very good network of people on both sides of the aisle, and she really listens to both sides."

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