After nearly 11 suspenseful months, the Senate is expected to hold a confirmation hearing on Biden’s recently appointed Federal Communications Commission chair on Wednesday. But the new chair will arrive in the middle of an agency stalemate that’s put net neutrality work on pause for Biden’s entire first year in office.
Today, the Senate is expected to advance former FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as chair of the commission — but it will take no action on Biden’s other nominee, and it will keep the FCC deadlocked with two Democrats, two Republicans, and one empty seat. Without a majority, Democrats will have little chance of bringing back Obama-era net neutrality rules, since the Republican commissioners remain deeply opposed to net neutrality.
That stalemate, and the desire to keep the Trump-era rollback in place, has resulted in a surprising fight over the final open seat. In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, several Republicans came out in opposition of Gigi Sohn’s nomination, accusing the telecom policy veteran of holding an unfair bias against conservatives — and making her path to nomination that much slower.
“Gigi Sohn is a complete political ideologue who has disdain for conservatives. She would be a complete nightmare for the country when it comes to regulating the public airwaves,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a tweet thread last week. “I will do everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee.”
“Sohn, obviously, her views are going to be very far apart from where mine are on all the issues,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) to Politico earlier this month. “She’s very left, she’s going to be a heavy hand in regulation, very heavy in net neutrality.”
Additionally, The Wall Street Journal editorial board published an op-ed on November 8th suggesting that Sohn could use her position at the FCC to “censor conservative outlets.” Rupert Murdoch, conservative media tycoon, owns the Journal.
That pushback is particularly stark given the relatively mild response to Rosenworcel, whose nomination was lauded by Republicans like Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).
A former counsel to Chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration, Sohn is a prominent progressive advocate for net neutrality and additional regulatory restraints against telecom companies. At a May Verge event, Sohn called on the FCC to regulate broadband even further under new net neutrality rules, urging commissioners to enforce new pricing and transparency measures.
Despite her desires to ramp up broadband enforcement, Republican claims that Sohn would act as a censor are unfounded. The Journal’s op-ed warned that Sohn could push for a new “fairness doctrine,” referring to an October 2020 tweet in which she said “Fox News has had the most negative impact on our democracy,” calling the network “state-sponsored propaganda.”
The FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, instituted in 1949, required broadcasters to present controversial issues in an honest and equitable manner; essentially, devoting equal air time for stations to introduce these issues and counter them. The FCC abolished these rules in 1987. As former President Donald Trump ramped up criticisms over Big Tech as a potential censor of conservative views, Republicans discussed a possible new fairness doctrine for the internet.
Sohn has repeatedly called a new fairness doctrine a “bugaboo of the right” that would be unlikely to go into effect, whether through new FCC rules or legislation, according to Politico.
“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,” the White House said in its October announcement of Sohn’s nomination.
Before Biden’s nomination announcements last month, sources told The Verge that Sohn was in the running to become chair herself. However, Sohn’s appointment fell out of favor likely due to anticipation of Republican pushback.
Yet, even as some Senate Republicans and media organizations oppose Sohn’s nomination, other conservative networks have issued statements in favor of her confirmation.
“I know Gigi. I have worked with Gigi. And I have seen her fight for people’s right to express themselves, even when she disagrees with them,” Bradley Blakeman, former assistant and director of scheduling to former President George W. Bush, wrote in a Newsmax op-ed earlier this month. “I trust Gigi to get it right when it comes to protecting my free speech.”
OANN President Charles Herring said last week, “I’ve fought in the trenches side-by-side with Gigi Sohn for a number of years on multiple issues. I’m fully aware of Gigi’s personal views, yet I’m even more knowledgeable on her strong belief and advocacy for diversity in the programming lineup, especially in news, regardless of conflicts with her personal views.”
Without Republican support for Sohn’s nomination, the future of net neutrality could come down to how moderate Democrats, primarily Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), decide to vote.
Both Manchin and Sinema back Rosenworcel’s nomination for chair, but neither have made any public statements on Sohn. Sinema has repeatedly sided with Republicans on FCC-related issues. In 2019, Sinema refused to co-sponsor Senate Democrats’ Save the Internet Act, a bill that would permanently codify net neutrality rules into law.
“If the Biden administration and Senate Democrats want to go around saying that they’re fighting against corporate monopolies and to rein in the harm these companies cause, they need to prioritize this,” Evan Greer, a progressive tech advocate for Fight for the Future, told The Verge. “I’m still optimistic that they will.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mislabeled a tweet from Gigi Sohn as being published in 2022. The tweet was published in 2020.