Gigi Sohn, President Joe Biden’s choice to fill the vacant seat on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, was scheduled to be voted on Wednesday during an executive session of the Senate Commerce Committee beginning at 10 a.m. ET. However, the vote on her nomination was postponed until after the committee meeting because Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a key Republican on the committee, expressed concerns about a potential conflict of interest.
If Sohn makes it through the committee and is confirmed by the full Senate, it will pave the way for the restoration of Obama-era net neutrality protections, among other contentious issues. Sohn has attracted opposition from some Republicans, who’ve painted her as an extreme partisan. Sohn, who co-founded the public interest group Public Knowledge and advised former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, has long advocated for net neutrality, privacy protections, and media ownership diversity.
Sohn, who was first nominated to the FCC in October, was confirmed in December by the Commerce Committee. However, she has been waiting for the Senate Commerce Committee to vote on her bill for more than a month. Sen. Wicker, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, called for a new hearing on Sohn in January to look specifically at her time on the board of Locasat, a non-profit that streamed broadcast TV signals and was shut down after losing a copyright infringement lawsuit mounted by major broadcasters.
Wicker, who was provided with a confidential copy of the settlement agreement, expressed concern that Sohn would be financially liable to the companies she would regulate. However, according to a Bloomberg Law article published last week that cited the non-public settlement that the news agency had reviewed, a provision of the agreement released individuals from liability. Sohn signed the settlement agreement on October 27, the day after President Biden nominated her to serve on the FCC.
Because of this opposition, according to a spokesperson for Commerce Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, every Democrat on the committee must vote in favor of her nomination to move it to the full Senate. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico who serves on the committee, suffered a stroke last week, it was announced on Tuesday. While Lujan is expected to recover completely, his staff reports that he is still recovering in a hospital in New Mexico.
Sohn’s confirmation is critical because, since Biden took office in January, the FCC has been split 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans. As a result, the agency has been unable to take action on contentious issues such as media ownership or a vote to restore net neutrality. Once Sohn is approved by the Senate, Democrats will have a majority and will be able to fulfill Biden’s promise to reinstate net neutrality regulations. In July, he issued an executive order urging the FCC to reinstate Obama-era rules and take other measures to promote broadband competition, including requiring broadband companies to provide pricing transparency.
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, whether you’re checking Facebook, posting photos to Instagram, or streaming movies from Netflix or Prime Video. It also means that companies like Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, cannot favor their own content over a competitor’s.
The real question is how far the agency will go to rewrite the rules. Aside from prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to specific sites or services, Democrats on the FCC are likely to see re-establishing the agency’s Title II authority over broadband as the most important goal in a rule rewrite. In order to appease the broadband industry, the agency intentionally limited some of its authority under the 2015 rules. The question now is whether the Biden FCC will do the same in developing a new set of rules.
Though Democrats will be eager to get started, the process of restoring net neutrality and regaining FCC authority will be lengthy. Once Democrats gain a majority, they’ll have to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking and open the proposal for public comment. All told, new rules wouldn’t likely be in place for at least a year.