Policy

Biden FCC nominee Sohn is walking a tightrope with Republicans

Gigi Sohn faces plenty of GOP opposition, but the longtime net-neutrality advocate is hoping to pick up a little Republican support as she deals with Democrats’ narrow margins.

Gigi Sohn

Gigi Sohn’s work for net neutrality has become an issue in her confirmation hearings for the FCC.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn wouldn’t mind getting support from a Republican or two, and it’d certainly make her path back to the Federal Communications Commission easier.

During her Senate Commerce Committee confirmation on Wednesday, Sohn, a progressive favorite and longtime net-neutrality advocate, touted her commitment to ensuring a diversity of voices on the airwaves, her past fights for small conservative networks she personally disagrees with and her habit of socializing with those she battles on policy.

Many of the panel’s Republican members, who have been pushing back on President Joe Biden’s tech agenda in increasingly personal terms, signaled their distaste with her rhetoric and suggested Sohn is too biased or unfit to be one of the FCC’s five commissioners.

“You are now up for confirmation of one of the most powerful positions on free speech,” said Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, referring to Sohn’s past criticism of conservative media, including Fox News. “I think that disqualifies you completely.”

There were glimmers, though, that Sohn was looking for and could make headway on a bit of GOP support that would act as a bulwark against Democrats’ razor-thin margins in the Senate.

The conservative opposition is fierce. Many of the questions Sohn faced related to her stint as an FCC staffer during the Obama administration, when she was a major architect of the FCC's 2015 net-neutrality order banning internet service providers from blocking web content, slowing it down or demanding pay for prioritizing it. Biden has said he wants to see the FCC bring back net neutrality, which the commission overturned in the Trump era, but Republicans continue to decry the nondiscrimination order as one of the most egregious examples of Democratic policy overreach in recent times.

Multiple senators also raised Sohn’s position on the board of Locast, a free over-the-air streaming service that recently agreed to shut down following a lawsuit. Sohn said she had believed Locast could use a copyright exemption for nonprofits to help local broadcasters and bring programming to low-income viewers, but the service’s leadership closed it down soon after a judge ruled it didn’t qualify for the loophole.

Influential conservative personalities and outlets such as Tucker Carlson and Breitbart have also railed against Sohn and claimed she favors censorship against right-wing voices. Sohn testified her comments about Fox News, which she called “state-sponsored propaganda” in a tweet last year, were “maybe too sharp” and said her views wouldn’t affect her work as a commissioner.

If Sohn can’t attract any Republican support, she would need “yea” votes from every Senate Democrat to be confirmed. However, at least some members of the caucus already seem skeptical. Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen questioned Sohn’s prior positions on media diversity. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema suggested the FCC should stand back and give Congress time to solve the net-neutrality debate — although Congress has already spent several presidential administrations punting on the issue.

Fantasy football

Despite the acrimony she faces in the Senate, Sohn is also known for maintaining deep friendships across the aisle from her years in Washington, and unlikely help arrived in recent days: The heads of two conservative news networks, Newsmax and One America News Network, have come out in favor of Sohn. Her opposition to widespread media consolidation, including the ultimately failed Sinclair-Tribune deal, has put her on the same side as the small programmers.

Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a friend of former President Donald Trump, told Axios in a statement that the channel was “being sidelined in favor of a small number of mega-corporations who dominate the channel line-ups, forcing upon consumers expensive and little-watched networks.”

Sohn said during the hearing she was “proud that some of the most conservative television networks are supporting my nomination,” and she touted her commitment to pushing back on “gatekeeper power” and engaging with all views.

“I think we need more opportunities for voices that are not normally heard,” Sohn said, floating the possibility of expanding a program designed, in the agency’s words, to “promote the entry of new and diverse voices into the broadcast industry.” Sohn also let on that she twice joined the fantasy football league of Republican former FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a longtime opponent of net neutrality whose re-nomination she opposed in 2017.

During his turn to question Sohn, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said he was impressed and appreciated the assurances she gave that the lawsuit over Locast wouldn’t bias her views. Even conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been a thorn in the side of several Biden nominees, said he had spoken with Ruddy and called the latter’s support an “encouraging sign,” while jousting with Sohn over comments about Fox News.

If support from conservative news figures can give Sohn a boost with one or two Republican lawmakers, perhaps from among the few who have previously flirted with supporting net neutrality, it would give her breathing room and a clearer path to confirmation.

Approval from even a small number of GOP senators would also suggest that rampant corporate consolidation, particularly in media and tech, is continuing to scramble the traditional partisan lines and giving some Republicans cover to grant their blessing to Democratic nominees who pledge to fight monopoly power.

That’s particularly true if conservatives view the big companies involved as suppressing right-wing speech: Jonathan Kanter, another progressive pick Biden named to head up the Justice Department’s antitrust division, for instance, was confirmed in November with comfortable bipartisan margins, in part thanks to his longtime criticism of Google.

The race for the Biden agenda

Should Sohn win the seat on the FCC, Democrats could finally begin to implement their telecom agenda, including restoring net neutrality, improving broadband coverage maps and deploying billions in discounts from recent infrastructure funds aimed at boosting internet access for low-income Americans.

During the Wednesday hearing, the panel also voted to advance the nomination of Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chair of the FCC, whom Biden named to take over in an official capacity. She will soon have to leave the agency, imperiling Biden’s agenda, if she’s not confirmed by the whole Senate for another term.

The committee also advanced the nomination of Alvaro Bedoya, a privacy advocate who would serve as the third Democrat on the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was pursuing an aggressive agenda to push back on tech and other industries until the departure of a prior Democratic commissioner left the agency with a 2-2 partisan split. Bedoya, whom Republicans have also cast as biased against conservatives, passed in a party-line vote.

In addition on Wednesday, Alan Davidson, whom Biden named to head up National Telecommunications and Information Administration, testified about his nomination. The formerly sleepy role of leading NTIA is taking on new prominence with the passage of the infrastructure bill, which allows the office to write rules for and oversee the distribution of $42.5 billion in broadband grants to states.

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