By day two of President Joe Biden’s term, he moved to make good on him promise to restore net neutrality, partially, anyway. That was when he named a strong net-neutrality proponent, Jessica Rosenworcel, the Federal Communications Commission’s acting chairwoman. It took nearly a year for Biden to formalize her position and nominate her in the position. The Senate got her confirmation done in December, 2021.
But they left nominee Gigi Sohn hanging, and that’s a travesty. For one thing, it means that the FCC is deadlocked because of the vacancy in what is supposed to be her seat. That means the two Republican commissioners can block the agency from doing basically anything.
Sohn is an amazingly qualified candidate. Sohn has been a net neutrality hero for years, standing with us in the initial fight to get then-chairman Ted Wheeler to embrace it. Sohn served as Wheeler’s counselor, a role in which she definitely influenced Wheeler’s eventual decision in 2015 to implement the Open Internet Order, which set more clear net neutrality rules. Which were of course abandoned as soon as Trump took office and put the loathsome Ajit Pay in control.
When Biden announced Son’s nomination, the White House called her “one of the nation’s leading public advocates for open, affordable, and democratic communications networks,” pointing out her decades of work on behalf of consumers. “For over thirty years, Gigi has worked to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open, and protective of user privacy. If she is confirmed, Gigi would be the first openly LGBTIQ+ Commissioner in the history of the FCC.”
Without Sohn on board, the ambitious and critical anti-trust executive order Biden issued last year can’t fully be realized. In addition for calling for a restoration of net neutrality in the order, Biden called a number of measures to break the essential monopolies various internet service providers hold in regions across the country. It called on the FCC to prevent ISPs from making exclusive deals or collusive arrangements with landlords to shut out competition from other ISPs, leaving tenants with only one option. It also asks the FCC to revive another Obama-era effort, a “Broadband Nutrition Label” to increase transparency for consumers, and require providers to report prices and subscription rates to the FCC, and to limit excessive early termination fees ISPs charge for people switching providers.
The big infrastructure bill Congress passed and Biden signed this year—which they all fell all over themselves to call bipartisan—has $65 billion worth of broadband investment, which requires a watchdog FCC to help prevent it from being a Big Telecom free-for-all and to make sure that the intent of the law is fulfilled, particularly for rural broadband.
That all demands Sohn’s confirmation now—not in the next Senate. She can’t keep waiting around for the job and the FCC can’t keep waiting around for a functioning majority. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has prioritized judicial nominations for the lame-duck session, but he needs to move Sohn to the top of the list, over judges. Now that the Senate majority is secured for two more years for Democrats, they’ve got plenty of breathing room for to handle judges. This specific nomination, Sohn to the FCC, likely has an expiration date For one thing, Sohn would probably like to—not to mention need to—get a permanent job instead of hanging in limbo waiting for this one.
So what’s holding the Senate up? The Verge took a deep dive into that this fall and concluded this: corruption.
“It’s corruption. I mean, we can call it a lot of things, but what we’re witnessing is just ordinary corruption,” Karl Bode, a long-time telecom reporter told the Verge. “I’ve covered the telecom sector for I think 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite as shady as this.”
There’s no one in the consumer advocacy sphere who doesn’t laud her. She even has support from the wildest of places—Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, who thinks she’s terrific. “I’ve strongly supported her nomination. I’ve known her for some time. I think she’s a person of integrity,” Ruddy said. “Am I going to agree with her on every issue? No, but I do think that the fact that every major big company, all the big conglomerates, don’t like her suggests that maybe she’s on a path that’s at least going to look out a little bit more for the consumer and the little guy and gal, so to speak.”
Telecom lawyer David Goodfriend, a former FCC employee, spells out the biggest part of the problem. “There are really two companies that have been literally financing a campaign to stop the Senate from confirming Gigi Sohn, and those two companies are Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation and Comcast. Those two companies have paid for lobbyists to actively court swing votes in the Senate against Gigi Sohn.”
Those swing votes that matter aren’t surprising: Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who have very close friends and former staff who are . . . telecom lobbyists. It’s time for Biden and Schumer to make a very big stink about the corruption and corporate pressure those two are bowing to and get this done. There couldn’t be a better time than following the best midterm election for a Democratic president—any president— in nearly a century.
Elections do have consequences, and one of the big ones from this election should be unshackling the FCC so it can work for us.
Why did Democrats do so surprisingly well in the midterms? It turns out they ran really good campaigns, as strategist Josh Wolf tells us on this week's episode of The Downballot. That means they defined their opponents aggressively, spent efficiently, and stayed the course despite endless second-guessing in the press. Wolf gives us an inside picture of how exactly these factors played out in the Arizona governor's race, one of the most important Democratic wins of the year. He also shines a light on an unsexy but crucial aspect of every campaign: how to manage a multi-million budget for an enterprise designed to spend down to zero by Election Day.