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President Joe Biden wanted Gigi Sohn to fix America’s internet — what went wrong?



The Monday before Gigi Sohn withdrew her nomination to the Federal Communications Commission, she sat down in her Washington, DC, home with her wife and teenage daughter to finish drafting the statement announcing the decision.

Nearly 500 days had passed since President Joe Biden first picked her to become the third Democrat to the nation’s top telecommunications regulator, and she was nowhere closer to confirmation than when her name was first announced in October 2021. While other Biden nominees, like now Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, soared through the confirmation process, Sohn was met with a fierce opposition campaign traditionally saved for a president’s Supreme Court or cabinet nominees. 

“I had written the withdrawal statement a year before,” Sohn told me over the phone in early June. Whenever a new rumor or attack against her came out in the pages of The Wall Street Journal or headlined a scathing Fox News segment, she’d dig that statement back up wondering whether it was enough to spook Senate Democrats against her.

Her nomination was supposed to be the crowning achievement of her 30-year career — and more importantly, a key piece of Biden’s plans for the internet. The covid pandemic had shown just how necessary improving internet access was across the US. Parents drove up to fast food restaurants for Wi-Fi so their kids could finish their remote schooling homework, and libraries became hubs for rental hotspots. The Biden administration’s goal was to finally bridge the digital divide, expanding access to high-speed broadband everywhere. 

 But by March 7th, Sohn knew it was over. After three nominations and three confirmation hearings that got nastier with each new iteration, the votes just weren’t there. Her opposition had read all of her tweets, found faults in nearly every position she ever held, and made up new problems when everything else wasn’t enough. Sohn herself felt like she’d been held at arm’s length, unable to respond to the smear campaign consuming her life and nomination.

Pulling out of the running no longer felt so difficult. Instead, the announcement would be an opportunity to speak up for herself, she thought. At least this withdrawal would be on her own terms. 

Then, a day before that planned announcement, Sen. Joe Manchin sucked the air out of her plans. The centrist Democrat from West Virginia publicly opposed Sohn’s confirmation. “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. “I urge the Biden administration to put forward a nominee who can bring us together, not drive us apart.” It was odd timing, Sohn thought — she had only notified the White House, the Senate Commerce Committee, and her family of her plans. If every other Democrat supported Sohn’s nomination, Manchin’s vote wouldn’t matter. But that didn’t stop him from hijacking her announcement.

The rug had been pulled from under her yet again. 

Sohn began her career in tech policy decades earlier — with a battle for access not online but on TV.

When Sohn graduated law school in 1986, the United States was undergoing a television programming revolution. The Reagan administration had unwound many of the regulations limiting cable adoption, disrupting the grasp that dominant roof-top antenna broadcasters like ABC, CBS, and NBC held over what people could watch in their own homes. Cable television’s promise of limitless, even conflicting programming offered a new lane for opening media ownership up to more groups. And with cable companies quickly taking over broadcast as the dominant programming providers, she saw an opportunity to seize the moment.

“I spent a good part of my early part of my career from the late ’80s to the mid-to-late ’90s trying to make broadcasting and cable more democratic,” Sohn said. “A lot of work in my early career was trying to diversify ownership of media, try and get cable to actually give meaningful access to differing voices.”

In 1988, she joined the Media Access Project (MAP), a public interest law firm devoted to diversifying media ownership. Founded in the 1970s, MAP’s early work focused on opening networks to ownership by civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activists. Starting in the 1980s, it pushed for a return to the Fairness Doctrine, a set of Reagan-abolished FCC rules that required broadcasters to present opposing perspectives on controversial issues. But as attempts to reinstate those rules failed, Sohn and her colleagues turned to pressuring the emerging telecom behemoths into hosting a variety of ideologically independent networks.  

In the early 2000s, cable companies were getting an appetite for a new medium: broadband internet. Broadband had the potential to do everything cable TV had done and more.

“The internet comes along and changes everything,” Sohn said. “We go from top-down command-and-control media to this medium where anybody who could afford a connection has a voice.”

“The internet comes along and changes everything.”

For one thing, access was wildly uneven. At the beginning of 2005, 32 percent of white Americans had access to broadband in the home, compared to 13 percent of Black Americans, according to Pew Research Center data. Around 58 percent of families making $75,000 a year had internet access at home at the time. Only 15 percent of households making less than $30,000 a year had comparable access.

For another, there was little stopping cable companies from shaping what content went online or how fast it was delivered. Broadband was classified as a Title I “information service” under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Unlike a Title II common carrier, regulators had little clear authority to stop service providers from discriminating against the online equivalent of upstart cable channels. That meant internet providers could restrict what customers had access to see and interact with online. In 2003, legal scholar Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in an academic paper, calling the idea “no different than the challenge of promoting fair evolutionary competition in any privately owned environment.” 

Sohn saw internet access as a landmark struggle for free expression. In 2001, she co-founded Public Knowledge, a policy group that promoted open internet rules and expanded broadband access. The group took hard stances on protecting consumer privacy, opposing carriers being able to snoop on what users are accessing online. It opposed the increasing consolidation of media companies, like Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal.

Because of Public Knowledge’s goal to enhance competition in cable, its work didn’t always fit neatly along partisan lines. One of the group’s strange bedfellows was Herring Networks, founded by Robert Herring Sr. and his sons, Charles and Robert Jr. The Herrings entered the cable world in 2004 with WealthTV, a channel dedicated to the audacious lifestyles of the rich and famous. But cable companies wouldn’t carry the channel, even when the Herrings offered it for free. By 2007, the family escalated this battle, petitioning the FCC for help. In FCC filings, the company accused large cable providers of discriminating against independent networks in order to protect the audiences of their own outlets. 

Despite the support of Sohn and groups like the Media Access Project in filings and amicus briefs, the Herrings’ WealthTV pleas failed in court. But they continued to cross paths, opposing giant mergers between companies like Sinclair and Tribune Media as the Herrings’ latest venture, One America News, started to take off in the late 2010s. “There’s a competitive news network that wants to come on the scene. Why is it, given that cable isn’t channel constrained, that they can’t carry OAN? And it’s because other stations don’t want the competition from a new news channel,” said Greg Guice, government affairs director for Public Knowledge, describing Sohn’s support for the Herrings. 

Charles Herring came out in support of Sohn’s nomination shortly after it was announced in 2021. “I’ve fought in the trenches side-by-side with Gigi Sohn for a number of years on multiple issues,” Herring said. “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.”

Through the 2000s and early 2010s, broadband access and net neutrality became a cornerstone of progressive internet policy. Republicans — and large cable companies — opposed expanding the FCC’s power by giving it more authority over internet service providers. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) went as far as calling net neutrality “Obamacare for the internet.”

Meanwhile, throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to support the introduction of net neutrality rules. After he was elected, his first-term FCC passed rules banning internet providers from blocking or throttling content by 2010. But not even a year later, Verizon sued the FCC over these rules and ultimately won when a federal appeals court struck down the 2010 rule at the beginning of 2014. 

Obama’s pick for a second term was Tom Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist. Many progressive activists were skeptical of Wheeler. But while preparing to become chair, he approached Sohn with a proposal. “He calls me one day in August and says, ‘I have this crazy idea.’ And I thought to myself, ‘He’s gonna ask me if I want to come work for him,’” Sohn said. “And his crazy idea, which was not so crazy in execution, was for me to basically be his main stakeholder outreach person.”

With Sohn as one of his many advisors, Wheeler led the agency in a number of landmark consumer protections. The Wheeler FCC increased competition for set-top cable boxes and tried to overthrow state laws forbidding municipal broadband networks. But Wheeler’s major achievement was implementing net neutrality nationwide. The net neutrality rules barred internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon from blocking or favoring online content. But most importantly, it gave the agency power to regulate broadband.

“I was the only person in his office who said ‘you need to do Title II’ and didn’t change their mind.”

Net neutrality was a complex, downright wonky regulatory framework, but in the mid-2010s, it was a culture-wide battlefield. In 2014, the comedian John Oliver devoted a segment of his show, Last Week Tonight, to the issue, calling on viewers to flood the FCC’s comment sections in support of the rules. A host of major web companies like Netflix, Reddit, and Tumblr splashed their homepages with warnings about online “slow lanes” —  “cable companies want to set up toll booths on the internet,” blared Kickstarter’s homepage.

“I supported Tom Wheeler becoming the FCC chair among a lot of skepticism from public interest advocates because he had worked for the cable and wireless industries. But that was a long time ago, and it’s when they were the new guys on the block,” Sohn said. “I was the only person in his office who said ‘you need to do Title II’ and didn’t change their mind.”

The sense of triumph didn’t last long. After taking office, President Donald Trump oversaw the confirmation of conservative FCC Chair Ajit Pai in October 2017. Pai almost immediately led a vote to overturn Title II net neutrality in December. For four years, it and other progressive goals — like expanded broadband access — languished. But in 2020, Trump lost the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Biden promised to bring back net neutrality and get all Americans access to high-speed broadband. And he wanted Sohn to help him do it. 

In October 2021, Biden nominated Sohn to fill out the FCC’s Democratic majority. A White House press release applauded her for making “broadband internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open, and protective of user privacy.” If confirmed, she would also be the first openly gay commissioner in FCC history.

“The first few weeks after I got nominated were all sunshine and roses,” Sohn recalls of her nomination. But from the beginning, Biden was playing catch-up. Focused on the ongoing covid pandemic, he had waited nine months to nominate Sohn and proposed chair Jessica Rosenworcel — by contrast, Trump had put forward nominees by June of his first year in office. 

The Senate would traditionally have held Rosenworcel and Sohn’s hearings together, then moved both to a floor vote. But within weeks, the process veered off course — and a conservative campaign against Sohn began to spin up. 

The big question isn’t why Republicans opposed a Democratic commissioner — it’s why Democrats failed to support her

Sohn’s first inkling of trouble came in the form of an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. The Journal’s editorial board decried Sohn as a would-be “media censor” and opposed her nomination to the FCC. The case wasn’t built on her activism — which had, in fact, earned her support from conservatives like Herring. Instead, it leaned on a handful of tweets critical of conservative media behemoths Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the criticism caught on. The next day, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) amplified these arguments on Twitter, linking to the piece. “Gigi Sohn is a complete political ideologue who has disdain for conservatives,” Graham tweeted. “She would be a complete nightmare for the country when it comes to regulating the public airwaves.”

Sohn, it turned out, had drawn the attention of the American Accountability Foundation (AAF) — a conservative-aligned dark money group tied to the Trump-backed Conservative Partnership Institute. The AAF was known for instigating controversies around Democratic lawmakers — it filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), for instance, for attending the 2021 Met Gala. But it focused its strongest fire on lower-level Biden nominees.

In an interview with Fox News, AAF founder and executive director Tom Jones said the organization’s main goal is to “take a big handful of sand and throw it in the gears of the Biden administration.” Their obstructionist playbook aims to make the work of governance more difficult for Democrats, especially by targeting lower-level cabinet nominations — who, Jones explained, “are really the folks who are going to do the day-to-day work implementing the agenda.” They may also not be worth the culture war headache that high-profile nominees like Supreme Court pick Ketanji Brown Jackson bring. 

The playbook often worked. At agencies spanning the ATF to the Federal Aviation Administration, the AAF successfully stalled multiple Biden nominations. And at one point, Sohn was its biggest target. Over the course of its campaign, it would release an onslaught of billboard, newspaper, and digital ads to sink her confirmation.

While conservatives may have opposed Sohn on social media, they remained a consistent minority — albeit by a slim margin — in the Senate. In the wake of her failed nomination, the big question isn’t why Republicans opposed a Democratic commissioner. It’s why Democrats, from Congress to the White House, failed to support her. 

Sohn received her first confirmation hearing on December 1st, alone and more than two weeks later than her original scheduled date. “With each delay, these lobbyists and staffers had more time to dig up dirt, twist dirt, and get editorials planted. If I had been done quickly, I would have been done. But they just kept giving delay, delay, delay.”

The White House and Democrat electeds issued tepid statements in support of Sohn, if they issued any statements at all. Worse, Sohn says she wasn’t allowed to respond to the attacks herself, claiming that the White House forbade her from speaking up.

“It got to a point in January when I was getting those homophobic attacks. ‘Can I talk to the press?’ ’No, you cannot,’’’ Sohn said of her conversations with the White House. “And I was sending everything to the White House. Did they say anything? No. Did [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer say anything? No.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Sohn’s hearings were far more hostile than were Rosenworcel’s as Republicans pounced on the dark money-fueled fears over censorship. But after two hearings, Sohn’s nomination advanced out of committee by a tie 14–14 vote in March 2022. Then, that confirmation languished for more than nine months because Schumer never brought it up for a vote on the floor. 

Other Biden nominees have also struggled to cross the finish line

Outside observers noted the marked lack of support. “They didn’t [the White House] put the requisite firepower a government would need to have done to counteract a multimillion-dollar dark money campaign,” Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a March interview. “They were completely underestimating the level of opposition and the level of persuasive push the president’s bully pulpit has and held back too much.”

Brandon Tucker, Color of Change’s senior director of policy and government affairs, made a similar point to me back in April. “I do commend the White House for nominating and renominating a true champion and a tireless advocate, but it does feel as if once the writing’s on the wall, smear campaigns and the dark money entered the fray, there was not a counterpunch by her supporters.”

Other Biden nominees have struggled to cross the confirmation finish line over the last few years. Some were even targets of AAF. Saule Omarova, Lisa Cook, and Sarah Bloom Raskin did not respond to my requests for an interview or declined to speak with me. Even now, Biden’s pick to replace Marty Walsh as labor secretary, Julie Su, is facing tough headwinds from Republicans and Democrats alike. Herbie Ziskend, deputy White House communications director, tweeted a PunchBowl News screenshot Wednesday detailing an administration-led campaign to finish Su’s confirmation, seemingly learning a lesson from past failed nominations.

What Su and Sohn’s nominations have in common is the money and power the industries they regulate have over the political process. Throughout the 2022 midterms, Comcast alone made nearly $9 million in political contributions and spent close to $14.5 million on lobbying, according to Federal Election Commission records. The company hired lobbyist Kirk Adams of Consilium Consulting in Phoenix, Arizona, to work on “FCC nominations” specifically before that disclosure was deleted and replaced with “telecommunications policy”’ 11 hours later, Ars Technica reported last year. AT&T and Verizon contributed similar amounts to both Democrats and Republicans during the last midterms cycle. 

Telecom companies, like the ones that lobbied against Sohn’s nomination, are the only group that benefits from a dysfunctional FCC. Without a full slate of commissioners, these companies don’t need to fear tougher regulations or strict enforcement actions over failures to meet the regulations that are already in place.

In Sohn’s last confirmation hearing this past February, Nevada Democrat Sen. Jacky Rosen was her biggest holdout. Support from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) was shaky. “The third hearing was a disaster. And it was pretty clear at that juncture that the 2024s were not going to support me and a lot of Democrats didn’t even show up,” Sohn said.

Even if Sohn’s nomination made it out of committee, it’s unclear whether other Democrats like Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) would have voted for her. Pro-police groups like the Fraternal Order of Police had ramped up attacks on her confirmation. To vulnerable Democrats, not angering groups like these was more important than pushing through her nomination, Sohn said.

“The level of attention and the untruths and the smear campaigns that Gigi was on the receiving end of shines a light on corporate greed and the importance of a fully functioning FCC for communities of color and for accountability,” Tucker said.

On March 22nd, I met Sohn at Georgetown University to take portraits for this profile. She was filled with energy, having already picked out some locations with the help of Laura Moy, director of Georgetown Law’s Communications & Technology Law Clinic. 

“It’s been two weeks, right?” Sohn tells me, smiling at the camera. “Basically, my therapist says I’m in a period of mourning now. So I’m just taking it slow.”

Characteristically, that slow period didn’t last very long. By May 3rd, Sohn had accepted a new role as the executive director for the American Association for Public Broadband, an organization that advocates for the deployment and adoption of community-owned broadband networks. Less than a month later, she was in Kansas City, Missouri, working for the Benton Institute on similar issues and meeting with local broadband leaders. 

“I would have loved to take six months to decide what I want to do next, but I don’t have that luxury,” Sohn said. “I needed at least two months to recover, which I took. I probably needed more time, but you know, mama’s got to bring home a paycheck, right?”

Meanwhile, Biden and Congress have moved on. In May, Biden nominated veteran telecom lawyer Anna Gomez to replace Sohn. Gomez has spent the majority of her career working in government, so it’s more difficult to parse where exactly she stands on the controversial issues that likely played a role in sinking Sohn’s confirmation. Instead of the FCC spearheading the administration’s major broadband expansion project, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is doling out many of the resources to states. 

But the state of US broadband and net neutrality remains uncertain. Gomez received a far warmer welcome than Sohn in her first confirmation hearing in June, but anything can happen between now and a vote to swing Congress’ opinion against her. Congress has already proved its adeptness at delaying confirmations. Without an FCC majority, other federal agencies have started to take on the agency’s role in broadband expansion. But without five commissioners, it’s impossible to ensure carriers are keeping their promises.       

“I and many others really saw the internet as the future and the future of democratic communications,” Sohn said. “For all its warts, it has become that.”

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