Nominee Gigi Sohn Again Faces Senate Committee As Biden Administration Tries To Break FCC Deadlock

More than a year since she last faced a Senate hearing over her nomination to the FCC, Gigi Sohn returned again on Tuesday, telling lawmakers that “I believe deeply that regulated entities should not choose their regulators.”

Before the Senate Commerce Committee for a third time, she blasted “false and misleading attacks on my record and my character,” while she charged that industry opponents “have hidden behind dark money groups and surrogates because they fear a a pragmatic, pro-competition and pro-consumer policy maker.”

At stake is the Biden administration’s ability to break a 2-2 partisan deadlock on the commission, with the fifth spot vacant as Sohn’s nomination stalled out last year. But President Joe Biden recently renominated her for the new Congress, digging in in the face of GOP opposition, telecom and media industry attacks and, in the eyes of some of her fervent supporters, a smear campaign.

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The latest was a guilt-by-association Daily Mail story that linked her membership on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has often found itself at odds with studios and media companies over copyright issues, and its award to Mistress Blunt, a sex worker who was honored for her activism in digital rights and technology policy. EFF told the Daily Mail that Sohn had no role in selecting Blunt for the award.

Among her backers is Preston Padden, former top lobbyist for The Walt Disney Co. and top executive at News Corp., wrote in a letter to the committee that Sohn was being subject to “the worst, and most cynical and baseless smear campaign ever waged against a nominee to serve on the FCC.  Ms. Sohn’s only sin is that she roots for the underdog and for consumers.”

“As a result, some of the dominant Cable TV companies and Internet Service Providers have stooped to lows never before seen to smear Ms. Sohn,” Padden wrote. “They correctly fear that she would be a vote to require them to compete fairly and to respect consumers.”

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, characterized Sohn as someone who has “shown herself to be a partisan,” while arguing that she had failed to show good judgment and temperament. He cited political contributions that Sohn made to Democratic candidates while her nomination was pending. They totaled over $1,000, he said. FEC records show contributions of $550 to Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), a committee member.

“I am a citizen who just wanted to participate in the Democratic process,” Sohn told Cruz, adding that the contributions were “relatively small donations.”

Sohn’s nomination never made it to the floor in the 50-50 Senate last Congress. Sohn suggested that there are certain very large companies that would like the FCC continue to be deadlocked. It’s no secret.” Sohn would be the first openly LGBTQ member of the commission.

She was first nominated to the FCC in 2021. Her confirmation would give Democrats a 3-2 edge on the FCC, as tradition is that the party holding the White House will have a majority on the commission. That would give the commission the ability to move forward on controversial issues like net neutrality and media consolidation.

In two previous hearings, Republicans grilled Sohn over her past social media posts about Fox News, as hosts like Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters blasted her nomination. Lawmakers also raised issues about her participation in a start up venture called Locast. The non-profit service provided streams of broadcast signals, but suspended operations after broadcast networks sued for copyright infringement and a federal judge ruled in their favor.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Cruz said that if Sohn’s “brazen theft of intellectual property, her lack of candor and her conflicts of interest weren’t disqualifying on their own, then her long record of poor judgment should seal her fate.”

Sohn said last year that, for the first three years of her term, she would recuse herself from issues of retransmission consent and broadcast copyright. But that didn’t mollify others in the industry, like cable industry lobbyists, who argued that she should step away from other issues as well. Sohn said last year that sidelining her from an array of other controversial topics would mean that “no one with any knowledge who has ever spoken about these issues would ever be qualified to be an FCC commissioner, and that is perverse.”

Sohn’s years as a public interest advocate, including as cofounder of the public interest group Public Knowledge, has at times put her at odds with major and telecom conglomerates and Hollywood studios. Last year, the creative community took divergent stances on her nomination: The Directors Guild of America opposes her, the Writers Guild of America West wants her on the commission.

Democrats are now hoping that, after gaining a seat in the midterms, there are better prospects for Sohn to clear the Senate, perhaps in the spring.

More to come.

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