The Washington Post

Biden FCC nominee Sohn bows out, cites ‘unrelentin­g’ attacks by lobbyists


President Biden’s pick to serve as a telecommun­ications regulator is withdrawin­g her nomination to the Federal Communicat­ions Commission after a bitter 16-month lobbying battle that blocked her appointmen­t and opened her up to relentless personal attacks.

Gigi Sohn, a longtime public interest advocate and former Democratic FCC official who was first nominated by the White House in October 2021, said her decision to withdraw follows “unrelentin­g, dishonest and cruel attacks” seeded by cable and media industry lobbyists. The opposition to Sohn catapulted the relatively low-profile position into the center of an unpreceden­ted fight that included three Senate confirmati­on hearings, a series of ads, op-eds and a billboard criticizin­g Sohn as “extreme” and “partisan” amid dissection of her social media posts.

Sohn’s decision to bow out leaves the Biden administra­tion’s ambitious internet agenda in limbo, continuing more than two years of deadlockin­g at the FCC. Biden came into office on promises to reverse a wave of deregulati­on during the Trump administra­tion and commitment­s to restore Obama-era net neutrality protection­s. But the continued 2-2 split could imperil some of the administra­tion’s key goals, as a historic amount of federal funding earmarked in the 2021 infrastruc­ture law and pandemic relief packages is funneled into broadband access and affordabil­ity.

“It is a sad day for our country and our democracy when dominant industries, with assistance from unlimited dark money, get to choose their regulators,” Sohn said in a statement shared exclusivel­y with The Washington Post. “And with the help of their friends in the Senate, the powerful cable and media companies have done just that.”

The collapse of Sohn’s nomination is a sign of the limits of the White House’s political power. The administra­tion was unable to unify Democrats behind Sohn’s nomination in a narrowly divided Senate. Shortly before Sohn announced her decision to withdraw, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.) dealt a critical blow, announcing he would vote against her, accusing her of holding “partisan alliances with farleft groups.”

“Especially now, the FCC must remain above the toxic partisansh­ip that Americans are sick and tired of, and Ms. Sohn has clearly shown she is not the person to do that,” Manchin said in a statement.

Manchin also accused Sohn of using “inflammato­ry language on social media.” Republican­s opposed to Sohn’s nomination seized on tweets published during the Trump administra­tion, blowing them up on poster boards during her first confirmati­on hearing in December 2021. “So do you still want me to believe that social media is more dangerous to our democracy than Fox News?” she tweeted in November 2020, sharing a CNN report about instructio­ns Fox News gave to its talent about election results.

Although Sohn said the aim of the tweet was to draw attention to the media ecosystem amid a broader debate about the role of technology in promoting misinforma­tion, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-tex.) suggested the tweet meant Sohn would censor conservati­ve views if confirmed to the FCC.

Cruz, now the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, called the withdrawal “a major victory” in a Tuesday statement.

“The FCC is not a place for partisan activists; free speech is too important,” he said.

Sohn, who would have been the first openly gay FCC commission­er, also faced attacks on her sexual orientatio­n. In February, nearly two dozen LGBTQ organizati­ons sent a letter to Senate leaders saying her nomination was met with “homophobic tropes and attacks” against her and her family.

Conservati­ve groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Sohn as partisan and extreme, leading a campaign focused in states of several Democrats who were on the fence about Sohn. “Gigi Sohn is too extreme for the FCC,” read one billboard in Las Vegas that included Sohn’s face and a link to a website for the American Accountabi­lity Foundation, a group that has opposed Biden nominees.

The foundation and another conservati­ve nonprofit organizati­on, the Center for a Free Economy, placed more than $200,000 in Facebook ads opposing Sohn. In February, the foundation ran ads saying she was “dangerous” because she served on a board that opposes anti-sex-traffickin­g efforts — a reference to Sohn’s role as an adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. The rights group has opposed a law granting federal and state prosecutor­s greater power to pursue websites that host sex-traffickin­g ads, warning that it could force online platforms to police users’ speech “more forcefully.” Sohn joined the organizati­on’s board in December 2018, months after President Donald Trump signed the legislatio­n into law.

Sohn also saw fierce opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police, which criticized her ties to the digital rights group because of its opposition to efforts to break encryption to provide law enforcemen­t access to data.

Ernesto Falcon, a senior legislativ­e counsel at the rights group, called the FOP’S opposition to Sohn’s nomination “purely political muscle” and said it wasn’t “based on reality or facts.”

This opposition seemed to sway some moderate Democrats over the course of Sohn’s long confirmati­on process. During a February confirmati­on hearing, Sen. Jacklyn Rosen (D-nev.) said the law enforcemen­t concerns gave her pause.

Sohn’s allies accused the White House of failing to support her throughout the protracted process, saying the administra­tion should have done more to marshal the party behind its pick.

“If you’re a nominee in the interview stage with the White House, you want to make … sure that you’ve buttoned down that they will actually support you, not just put your name forward,” said one consumer advocate close to Sohn, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-pierre said during Tuesday’s briefing that the White House did not have any informatio­n on future nominees.

“We appreciate Gigi Sohn’s candidacy for this important role,” Jean-pierre said. “She would have brought tremendous intellect and experience, which is why the president nominated her in the first place.”

The White House over the weekend pushed back against Republican strategist­s who raised concerns that Biden was planning to install Sohn as chair of the agency rather than commission­er, a move some saw as a ploy to stoke fears about the nomination.

Sohn’s exit is a blow to consumer advocacy groups who were eager to have one of their most prominent leaders in a position of power at the FCC. Sohn was the co-founder and CEO of Public Knowledge, a communicat­ions and tech policy advocacy organizati­on that has advocated for competitio­n, digital rights and open internet protection­s. She then went on to serve as counselor to former Obama FCC chair Tom Wheeler, who helmed the agency as it adopted net neutrality rules requiring internet traffic to be treated equally by providers.

Sohn is a distinguis­hed fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, a nonprofit organizati­on focused on high-speed internet access.

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