Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

Sohn, a longtime telecom lawyer and consumer advocate with decades of connections in Washington, is known in particular for work on net neutrality.

Sohn's nomination, together with Biden's nomination of acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel to head up the agency officially, fill out the FCC, which currently has two Republican commissioners and two Democrats, rendering it politically hamstrung in many instances. The full slate would come as Biden's administration hopes to extend broadband service throughout the U.S. and revisit the net-neutrality fight.

Here's what you should know about Sohn.

She's an FCC alumna

Sohn previously served as a top aide to Obama-era FCC chair Tom Wheeler, who took her on despite her criticism of the commission's prior leadership for failing to institute net neutrality. In that role, she was an architect of the commission's 2015 net neutrality order, which banned internet service providers from blocking web content, slowing it down or demanding pay for prioritizing it. Despite playing out in the legalistic context of federal agency rule-making, the FCC's actions at the time were the culmination of a years-long campaign that spilled over into one of the first major grassroots tech policy movements and even took on a certain pop culture appeal. (Remember the John Oliver segment?)

Sohn also worked on the FCC's 2016 broadband privacy order. Later FCC leadership during the Trump administration reversed both measures.

She has net-neutrality expertise

Before her prior stint at the FCC, Sohn worked extensively advocating for net neutrality. She founded the tech policy group Public Knowledge and ran it for more than a decade, and the group was an early supporter of the issue. In addition, she'd spent time at the Ford Foundation as a project specialist in the Media, Arts and Culture unit. Although Sohn left in 2001, the foundation said in 2015 that it had spent "around $4 million a year over the past 10 years" supporting the issue.

She has longtime Washington ties

Leading Public Knowledge, which also engaged extensively in the 2000s fights over online copyright, meant Sohn worked with or oversaw some of the best-known and earliest tech policy figures. Law professor and open-internet advocate Lawrence Lessig served on the group's board during Sohn's tenure. Mike Godwin, who coined an eponymous "law" about Nazi comparisons on the internet and successfully helped litigate against the non-Section 230 provisions of the Communications Decency Act, served as Public Knowledge's legal director for a time.

Sohn's affiliations go broader, though. Before Public Knowledge and the Ford Foundation, she spent more than a decade at the top ranks of the now-defunct Media Access Project, the consumer group that worked on issues such as media diversity and ownership rules. She's also on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the oldest tech policy groups, which has spent years pushing for net neutrality, Section 230 protections, free speech online, strong encryption and privacy.

Sohn, who tech policy experts across the political spectrum often see as a mentor and friend, has also done stints as a fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Mozilla Foundation. (Biden also named an adviser to the Mozilla Foundation, Alan Davidson, to head up the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Tuesday.)

There's an ambitious but tricky agenda ahead

Because the FCC has been politically deadlocked, it's months behind many other executive departments and agencies in taking action on a Democratic agenda. Biden hopes to spend billions on an expansion of access to high-speed broadband in his infrastructure package — although the NTIA, rather than the FCC, could end up overseeing much funding for unserved and underserved communities.

Net neutrality may still be the ultimate challenge, however. In 2017, under then-chair Ajit Pai, the Republican-led FCC rescinded the Obama-era rules. Although the FCC is an independent agency, Biden spoke for many Democrats when he called for the FCC to go back again and institute the policy.

In addition, Democrats may want to reinstitute broadband privacy protections — an issue recently highlighted by an FTC study on how ISPs collect and use extensive data on consumers. Unlike the net-neutrality rule, however, Congress itself canceled the FCC's privacy regulations, meaning the agency would have to tackle the issue without issuing a substantially similar measure.

She's media-savvy

Sohn is a frequent commentator on tech and telecom policy in the media. She has also testified before Congress on several occasions, maintains a chatty presence on Twitter and hosted a podcast called "Tech on the Rocks." Typically quick to pick up the phone and crystalize a policy position as a sound bite, Sohn may have to pull back from her most public pronouncements, but she'll no doubt be keeping an eye on translating telecom policy for the masses in her work.

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