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.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories