Longtime public advocate Gigi Sohn
on Tuesday announced that she asked U.S. President Joe Biden to withdraw her
to the Federal Communications Commission after over a year of enduring a smear campaign
from dark money groups, telecommunications industry lobbyists, and right-wing figures.
"I could not have imagined that legions of cable and media industry lobbyists, their bought-and-paid-for surrogates, and dark money political groups with bottomless pockets would distort my over 30-year history as a consumer advocate into an absurd caricature of blatant lies," Sohn
said in a statement. "The unrelenting, dishonest, and cruel attacks on my character and my career as an advocate for the public interest have taken an enormous toll on me and my family."
While her announcement came just after U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a frequent obstacle to his own party's priorities,
confirmed Tuesday that he would not support the nomination, Sohn's lengthy statement—shared with The Washington Post—signaled that she decided to bow out after speaking with her family on Monday.
According to Sohn:
Unfortunately, the American people are the real losers here. The FCC deadlock, now over two years long, will remain so for a long time. As someone who has advocated for my entire career for affordable, accessible broadband for every American, it is ironic that the 2-2 FCC will remain sidelined at the most consequential opportunity for broadband in our lifetimes. This means that your broadband will be more expensive for lack of competition, minority, and underrepresented voices will be marginalized, and your private information will continue to be used and sold at the whim of your broadband provider. It means that the FCC will not have a majority to adopt strong rules which ensure that everyone has nondiscriminatory access to broadband, regardless of who they are or where they live, and that low-income students will continue to be forced to do their school work sitting outside of Taco Bell because universal service funds can't be used for broadband in their homes. And it means that many rural Americans will continue the long wait for broadband because the FCC can't fix its Universal Service programs.
It is a sad day for our country and our democracy when dominant industries, with assistance from unlimited dark money, get to choose their regulators. And with the help of their friends in the Senate, the powerful cable and media companies have done just that.
After thanking Biden—who first nominated her to the post in October 2021 and has stood by the choice—as well as the hundreds of organizations and advocates who have
supported her throughout the process, Sohn said that "I hope the president swiftly nominates an individual who puts the American people first over all other interests. The country deserves nothing less."
During a media briefing Tuesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre praised Sohn.
"We appreciate Gigi Sohn's candidacy for this important role. She would have brought tremendous intellect and experience, which is why the president nominated her in the first place. We also appreciate her dedication to public service, her talent, and her years of work as one of the nation's leading public advocates on behalf of American consumers and competition," said Jean-Pierre, who declined to comment on what's next.
"The abject failure of Democratic leaders to stand up and advocate for their own nominee means that these companies will likely only double down on the kinds of deceitful and dirty tactics they deployed against Sohn."
Meanwhile, advocacy groups that rallied behind Sohn not only expressed disappointment that she won't be on the FCC but also took aim at Democratic leadership for failing to adequately stand up for her in the face of dishonest attacks.
"Gigi would have provided the final key vote needed to move forward on major White House priorities including net neutrality, digital discrimination, privacy, network competition, broadband maps, and the digital divide," said Demand Progress communications director Maria Langholz. "Sohn's nomination was marred by right-wing extremist attacks that centered on misinformation and politics of division and hate rather than her record and role at the FCC. While it would be easiest to blame the right-wing for her nomination failing, there was missing urgency and commitment from Democrats in the White House and Senate."
"With Sohn now out of consideration, we expect the White House to provide a strong nomination in the immediate future," Langholz added. "The American people cannot afford to have this stalemate at the FCC any longer. President Biden must expeditiously move forward a nominee who will be a champion on net neutrality and privacy, and avoid delivering big telecommunications companies a victory in the form of an industry-friendly pick."
Free Press president and co-CEO Craig Aaron similarly said that "they're probably celebrating at Comcast and Fox today, and their lobbyists deserve most of the credit for concocting lies to derail her nomination. Republicans who willfully spread those lies must be thrilled, too. But they're not the only ones to blame: The failure of Democratic leaders to stand up to industry-orchestrated smears cost the agency—and the nation—a true public servant."
"The abject failure of Democratic leaders to stand up and advocate for their own nominee means that these companies will likely only double down on the kinds of deceitful and dirty tactics they deployed against Sohn," he warned. "We're angry about how Sohn was treated, and we're disturbed that Democratic leaders by and large failed to speak out against the lies, bigotry, and innuendo surrounding her nomination. But the answer here is not going back to the way things used to be at the FCC, when the industry got to hand-pick commissioners. Going backward would be a terrible mistake."
"There will be temptation in the weeks ahead to put forward an industry-friendly nominee to avoid a larger political fight. That's how the agency has worked in the past," Aaron added. "But the public—now more than ever—needs an independent voice at this crucial agency, one who won't cave to the industries they are supposed to regulate. Though Gigi Sohn deserved much, much better, we can only hope this moment will finally serve as a wake-up call to the Biden administration and the Democratic Party."
"Democrats promised to restore net neutrality and FCC oversight of telecom monopolies, and instead they caved to corporate interests and homophobic smears."
Fight for the Future director Evan Greer also expressed concern that the development will be followed by an industry-backed pick.
"Let's be perfectly clear: Democrats promised to restore net neutrality and FCC oversight of telecom monopolies, and instead they caved to corporate interests and homophobic smears. The same telecom companies that were caught red-handed funding a flood of fraudulent comments to the FCC and paying for misleading robocalls to senior citizens to kill net neutrality rules now will seemingly get to pick their own regulator, just as they did with Ajit Pai," Greer said, referring to a former FCC chair.
Internet service providers (ISPs) "are under immense pressure to censor legitimate content, including websites with accurate information about abortion care and LGBTQ issues, with state legislatures passing bills demanding ISPs block entire websites," she noted. "Meanwhile, lack of FCC oversight has enabled collection and sale of cel phone location data that puts vulnerable communities at risk of stalking, harassment, and surveillance. A fully staffed FCC could address these issues. Biden's deadlocked FCC is utterly impotent. And marginalized communities will pay the price for Democrats' incompetence and cowardice."
As for Biden's next nominee, Greer said that "we will fight tooth and nail to ensure that they don't pick another Ajit Pai clone. We demand an FCC commissioner that will fight for the public interest, and one that has no ties to the telecom industry that the agency is supposed to regulate."
This post has been updated with comment from Fight for the Future.