Gigi Sohn

Gigi Sohn testifies during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on February 9, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images)

240+ Groups Push Senate to Defy Telecom Attacks and Confirm Biden FCC Pick

"The companies lobbying against Gigi Sohn are simply trying to do one thing: keep the FCC deadlocked for as long as possible," said one advocate. "Sohn is an exceptionally qualified nominee and it's well past time to confirm her."

A coalition of nearly 250 advocacy groups sent a letter Friday urging U.S. Senate leaders to quickly confirm Democratic nominee Gigi Sohn as the fifth commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission following a year of relentless attacks on the open internet champion from telecom giants and right-wing media outlets.

"She's the decisive vote we need to close the digital divide, lower the cost of broadband, and hold companies like Comcast and AT&T accountable."

Twenty-one months into President Joe Biden's tenure, the FCC is still hampered by a partisan 2-2 divide. The ongoing lack of a Democratic majority at the key regulatory agency has undermined White House-backed efforts to secure universal access to high-speed internet and restore Obama-era net neutrality rules gutted by the Trump administration.

"The FCC needs a full commission as it begins to deliberate on upcoming critical decisions that will have profound impacts on the economy and the American people," wrote the coalition, which includes consumer protection and civil rights organizations such as Fight for the Future and MediaJustice.

The groups implored Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)--the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation--to bring Sohn's FCC confirmation vote to the floor "before Congress adjourns."

"We call on the Senate to give the consideration that is due to this highly qualified individual, who has dedicated her career to ensuring consumers have access to communications services available to everybody, regardless of income, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, geography, or political viewpoint," the letter states. "Her life's work is the embodiment of the FCC's mission, and we simply cannot [allow] a less than fully functioning FCC to persist any longer."

Notably, former President Donald Trump tapped Ajit Pai to lead the FCC on the fourth day of his term, and by December 2017, the corporate-friendly commissioner was giving internet service providers the power to block or slow down certain websites--opening the door to charging extra fees for access to "fast lanes," which would betray the principle of treating online traffic equally.

By contrast, Biden waited until October--nine months into his term--to name then-acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel as the agency's permanent leader and nominate Sohn to fill the last seat on its five-person board. While Rosenworcel was confirmed in December, Sohn has faced a barrage of opposition since being nominated nearly one year ago.

Greg Guice, the director of government affairs at Public Knowledge--which was co-founded by Sohn and signed the letter--called the campaign against the nominee "insane," though he acknowledged that it's fueled by corporate opposition to Sohn's progressive policy positions.

Lobbyists, Guice toldThe Washington Post on Friday, "know that being down one seat means they can better control the agenda."

For the past year, Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and longtime public interest advocate, has "been frequently attacked as a partisan in publications including Fox News, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal op-ed pages," the Post noted. "The process has taken a personal toll, opening Sohn up to threatening phone calls and emails and name-calling. Sohn, who would be the first openly gay FCC commissioner, has also faced attacks on her sexual orientation."

Sohn's nomination has been strongly opposed by GOP lawmakers, with all 14 Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee refusing to advance her nomination.

In addition, "some companies appear to be taking steps to target moderate Democrats who could decide her nomination," the Post reported. For instance, "Comcast this year paid former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and his firm $30,000 to lobby on the 'Status of FCC nominations,' among other issues, according to a July disclosure filing. Sohn is the only pending nomination for the commission."

According to the newspaper:

The company in January also tapped a former state lawmaker who served alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), widely seen as a crucial swing vote on the Sohn nomination, to lobby on FCC nominations. The filing disclosing the lobbying focus was later resubmitted and amended to scrub mention of the FCC nomination, as news outlets reported at the time. Comcast also retained Larry Puccio, the former top aide to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), another critical Democrat to lobby on telecommunications issues, though it did not mention nominations.

Preston Padden, a former top executive at Fox and Disney, said he could recall no other occasion where companies "microtargeted" specific lawmakers to oppose a FCC nominee.

"What Comcast has done to Gigi Sohn in my experience is absolutely unprecedented," Padden said.

"Don't be fooled by the latest Comcast-funded talking points," Joshua Stager, policy director at Free Press Action, which signed the letter, said in a statement. "The companies lobbying against Gigi Sohn are simply trying to do one thing: keep the FCC deadlocked for as long as possible."

"Sohn is an exceptionally qualified nominee and it's well past time to confirm her," said Stager. "We need a fully functioning FCC."

Friday's letter notes:

Over Ms. Sohn's 30 years of experience in telecommunications, broadband, and technology policy, she has shown a strong commitment to the First Amendment, and proven to be a leader in promoting innovation, U.S. jobs, and a strong economy. She has regularly worked with organizations representing diverse media interests and across the aisle to ensure all voices and views are heard both as a consumer advocate and as a government official...

Ms. Sohn has also worked extensively during her career to expand broadband access to those who can't afford it. Her work with industry and members of Congress in developing programs which support low-income Americans, including those in rural and tribal lands, is an example of her commitment to work with all sides to arrive at commonsense solutions. With the FCC having been tasked by Congress to ensure all Americans gain access to open, affordable, 21st-century ready broadband service under the bipartisan infrastructure law, the agency will benefit from Ms. Sohn's involvement as it works to expand work and business opportunities to Americans in unserved and underserved areas.

Stager said that "the hundreds of groups demanding Sohn's confirmation know that she's the decisive vote we need to close the digital divide, lower the cost of broadband, and hold companies like Comcast and AT&T accountable."

"Sohn is a dedicated public servant who won't cater to industry--which is why some of the nation's biggest phone and cable companies are spending tens of millions of dollars to lobby against her nomination," he added.

"We need a fully functioning FCC."

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and T-Mobile have spent more than $23 million lobbying Washington so far this year, according to Open Secrets.

Stager's assessment was echoed by David Segal, the founder of Demand Progress, another signatory.

The telecom lobby "still wields extraordinary political power" in Washington, which companies have used to thwart efforts to combat their "increasingly extractive business models," Segal told the Post, adding that the industry stands to benefit from an FCC without Sohn.

"The Biden administration has been strong on competition policy, and the FCC has important jurisdiction there that can't be deployed to full effect without a full commission," said Segal.

The absence of a Democratic majority at the federal agency tasked with reining in the telecommunications industry has coincided with a wave of corporate consolidation, including Amazon's $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM Studios, and AT&T's $43 billion merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery.

"It's outrageous that such underhanded tactics have kept people without the policies and protections they need to connect and communicate," Stager said.

"Sohn has a well-earned reputation for bipartisanship and consensus-building, which is why she has been endorsed by such a wide array of people and organizations from across the political spectrum," he added. "What's more, her confirmation would break barriers for the LGBTQIA+ community, helping the federal government better reflect the people it serves. Senate Majority Leader Schumer needs to call a vote on Sohn's confirmation as soon as possible."

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