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.

Fintech

Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

While this may seem like a move to compete with Block and its Square merchant unit in point-of-sale payments, that’s unlikely. The Apple service is using technology from its acquisition of Mobeewave in 2020 that enables contactless payments using NFC technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
China

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Entertainment

Spoiler alert: We’re already in the beta-metaverse

300 million people use metaverse-like platforms — Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft — every month. That equals the total user base of the internet in 1999.

A lot of us are using platforms that can be considered metaverse prototypes.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

What does it take to build the metaverse? What building blocks do we need, how can companies ensure that the metaverse is going to be inclusive, and how do we know that we have arrived in the 'verse?

This week, we convened a panel of experts for Protocol Entertainment’s first virtual live event, including Epic Games Unreal Engine VP and GM Marc Petit, Oasis Consortium co-founder and President Tiffany Xingyu Wang and Emerge co-founder and CEO Sly Lee.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Enterprise

Lyin’ AI: OpenAI launches new language model despite toxic tendencies

Research company OpenAI says this year’s language model is less toxic than GPT-3. But the new default, InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

The new default, called InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

Illustration: Pixabay; Protocol

OpenAI knows its text generators have had their fair share of problems. Now the research company has shifted to a new deep-learning model it says works better to produce “fewer toxic outputs” than GPT-3, its flawed but widely-used system.

Starting Thursday, a new model called InstructGPT will be the default technology served up through OpenAI’s API, which delivers foundational AI into all sorts of chatbots, automatic writing tools and other text-based applications. Consider the new system, which has been in beta testing for the past year, to be a work in progress toward an automatic text generator that OpenAI hopes is closer to what humans actually want.

Keep Reading Show 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
Bulletins