Ajit Pai’s FCC axed net neutrality regulations during the Trump administration, giving broadband companies in the US free rein to block or throttle websites and online services. The commission hasn’t acted to restore those regulations under Biden due to a stalemate over the president’s repeated nominee for commissioner, Gigi Sohn, who says her confirmation is being blocked by a telecommunications industry that fears a “pragmatic, pro-competition, pro-consumer policymaker.”
The FCC is run by five commissioners, but it currently only has four: two Republicans and two Democrats. If Sohn becomes the fifth commissioner, Democrats will have the majority they need to start making policy changes, such as reinstating net neutrality rules. That would be a good thing for PC gamers—we laid out why we like net neutrality back in 2017—but Sohn’s nomination has been bitterly opposed by a number of Republicans, who claim she’s too partisan for the job, and her confirmation has been repeatedly thwarted.
In a prepared statement (opens in new tab) during her third confirmation hearing today, Sohn said that it is “critical for at least one member of the FCC to be a consumer advocate,” and stated that the telecommunications industry has been behind “false and misleading” attacks on her record and character through “dark money groups and surrogates.”
Led by Republican Senator Ted Cruz, opponents to Sohn’s appointment claimed in the hearing that she misled the committee about her legal work with Locast (opens in new tab), a non-profit which streamed over-the-air TV broadcasts on the internet until it was sued to oblivion by the major broadcast networks, an accusation she denies. Sohn was also criticized for donating to the campaigns of senators during her nomination, and her political views were interrogated. Critics say Sohn’s position on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit focused on internet privacy and free speech, puts her in league with “far left radicals” and that she’s likely to censor conservatives in the media. A handful of Sohn’s past comments and retweets, particularly a retweet of a 2020 comment from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (opens in new tab) about the “defund the police” slogan, were of particular interest.
Sohn argued in response that her record of free speech advocacy has led to endorsements by right-wing networks Newsmax and OAN, along with anti-obscenity group Parents Television Council and other conservatives. Sohn also said that her membership on the EFF’s board doesn’t mean she agrees with all of the organization’s positions, such as its support of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who she called a “Russian asset.” Regarding law enforcement, Sohn said that she only retweeted AOC’s remark about the “defund the police” slogan because the representative “was explaining what she meant” by it, and that she personally finds the slogan “stupid” and “counter-productive.”
“I do not support defunding the police,” said Sohn. “Let me just say first that I’ve always respected and worked with law enforcement, ever since I was in law school, so I’m really baffled by this opposition.”
It’s not exactly the stuff you expect to hear from a far left radical. Sohn and supporters say the real reason she’s been taking heat is her record as a consumer advocate. In support of Sohn, Democratic Senator Ed Markey stated that she’s one of “the single most qualified candidates for any position to ever come before the Commerce Committee for confirmation.”
“Every day that Ms Sohn goes without being on the FCC is a win for giant telecommunications companies and their army of lobbyists here in Washington DC,” said Markey. “It is a loss for the American people. And why do the giant companies oppose Ms Sohn? Because she believes in Darwinian, paranoia-inducing competition in the telecommunications field. She believes in consumer protections.”
“This position remains vacant because the companies that are lawfully subject to oversight by the FCC don’t want a watchdog,” said Democratic Senator Ben Ray Luján. “They don’t want to be regulated, and these companies have spent an immense amount of money and influence to keep this position vacant.”
Keeping the position vacant keeps net neutrality regulations at bay, and Sohn is clear in her belief that, in lieu of legislation, the FCC has the authority to adopt and enforce net neutrality regulations.
“To me, the issue is not about blocking and throttling and paid prioritization, it’s about whether an agency which was created in 1934 to oversee communications networks should have the power to oversee the most powerful communications network of our time,” said Sohn during today’s hearing. “Congress has had two decades now to decide that authority and it’s refused to do so, however I still believe Congress should do so, and I beg Congress to do so. But until then, until it does so, the agency has got to have authority.”
Net neutrality regulations aside, Sohn is a “huge supporter” of rural broadband, and says she can help the FCC by securing more accurate broadband maps from states to ensure money is “going to the right places.”
Sohn’s appointment can be confirmed with a Senate vote. Reuters reports (opens in new tab) that a time for the vote has not been chosen.