Hiltzik: Business campaigns to keep Gigi Sohn off the FCC

ByMarcella L. Bouffard

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Riding high after killing off President Biden’s nomination of a pro-labor regulator for a key post at the Department of Labor, big business has been sharpening its knives for a noted consumer advocate nominated to join the Federal Communications Commission.

The target this time is Gigi Sohn, whose credentials as a critic of the monopoly power of big telecommunications companies and a defender of the public interest are unassailable. So the telecom industry and big business in general have chosen to smear her with misrepresentations and outright lies.

So far they’ve succeeded in hobbling Sohn’s progress toward confirmation. That’s placed a whole raft of telecom reforms on hold, because without her confirmation, the FCC is stuck with a 2-2 split between Republicans and Democrats.

While policymakers have focused disproportionately on broadband deployment in rural areas of the United States, Americans who live in cities also face enormous challenges to broadband connectivity.

— Gigi Sohn, candidate for Federal Communications Commission

The campaign against Sohn has falsely painted her as a foe of diversity in telecommunications and an advocate of suppressing conservative viewpoints.

The truth is that Sohn has long been a supporter of diversity — demographically and ideologically — in fact, the conservative information outlets Newsmax and One America News Network have issued endorsements of Sohn.

Newsmax commentator Bradley Blakeman wrote on its website in November that although he and Sohn hold diametrically opposing political views, “I trust Gigi to get it right when it comes to protecting my freedom of speech.”

Around the same time, One America President Charles Herring urged on OANN’s website that Sohn be confirmed, writing that Sohn “believes in the First Amendment and the advantages of a strong and open media for the benefit of our democracy.”

(Herring’s endorsement evidently caused some consternation within OANN — his father, Robert Herring Sr., the network’s founder, went on its newscast to disavow his son’s endorsement, which seems to have been scrubbed from the website. OANN now identifies Sohn as an “enemy of the free press.”)

Sohn’s confirmation has been stalled since October. It’s now on the verge of becoming swamped by midterm election politics, when no one on Capitol Hill will be inclined to take a stand on anything with even the faintest aroma of controversy.

Because no action was taken on Sohn’s nomination in 2021, President Biden had to resubmit her name this year. She has already undergone two separate Senate confirmation hearings.

This won’t be the first time that big business has taken aim against a Biden nominee over fears that the nominee will actually do the job of regulatory oversight that he or she has been nominated for.

Amazon and Facebook took aim at Lina Khan, Biden’s appointee as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that she should recuse herself from FTC cases against those companies because she had been critical of them in the past.

In essence, the companies were afraid that Khan’s knowledge of their operations and policies, developed through painstaking study and through official investigations on Capitol Hill, and relentlessly voiced publicly, would make her too effective at riding herd on big tech. (She hasn’t recused.)

Last month, David Weil withdrew as a candidate to head the wage and hour division at the Department of Labor, where he had served during the Obama administration. Weil’s withdrawal followed a punishing campaign by business interests to paint his pro-labor views as radical.

The business lobbies succeeded in scaring off three key Democratic votes in the Senate, dooming Weil’s confirmation.

Now they’re after Sohn, 60. Like Khan and Weil, she’s superbly qualified for the post for which she’s been nominated. She was a top aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration, when the agency took a distinctly pro-consumer stance.

Subsequently she co-founded and led Public Knowledge, a telecommunications consumer advocacy organization. She’s held fellowships at USC and an adjunct professorship at Georgetown and is widely respected all along the ideological spectrum.

But to big business, as a potentially effective regulator, she simply won’t do.

Over the last couple of months, the business community has stepped up its opposition, with the evident goal of turning centrist Democrats against her, which would kill her chances. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition on March 2, for example.

Entering the lists more recently is the One Country Project, a creation of former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, which on April 18 announced a $250,000 advertising campaign designed to paint Sohn as an enemy of rural broadband, a fabricated and absurd charge.

One Country has links to the telecom industry via the lobbying firm Forbes-Tate, whose partners helped Heitkamp set up the organization’s website and provided other services, according to the Intercept. Among Forbes-Tate’s clients have been Verizon, Frontier Communications, the wireless industry lobbying organization CTIA and the Internet and Television Assn., or NCTA.

One Country’s campaign is rolling out in six states, including Arizona and West Virginia — a clear signal that it’s aimed at Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the cabal that sank the Weil nomination.

Let’s examine One Country’s claim that Sohn has opposed the rollout of broadband internet access to rural communities. One Country provides two nuggets of evidence to support this assertion. Both are misleading to the point of fabrication.

The first is a single phrase lifted out of context from Sohn’s Jan. 29, 2020, testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce: There she stated, according to One Country, “policymakers have focused disproportionately on broadband deployment in rural areas of the United States.”

Sohn did say that. But that’s only a partial quote. In context, she was saying that by focusing chiefly on rural broadband, policymakers were ignoring the parallel problem of lack of access to the internet among poor urban dwellers. Here’s the full quote:

“While policymakers have focused disproportionately on broadband deployment in rural areas of the United States, Americans who live in cities also face enormous challenges to broadband connectivity.”

In the very next sentence (not quoted by One Country), Sohn cited research showing that “the country’s broadband adoption problem is three times higher in urban areas than rural.”

In other words, she was advocating for a federal-level effort to bring broadband to all underprivileged communities, not just rural — and saying in effect that internet providers were getting a pass on solving the broader problem.

The second nugget cited by One Country is a statement by Sohn that FCC policies have “made it really easy” for rural broadband companies “to basically suck at the government teat to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.”

The inference offered by One Country is that Sohn opposes funding rural broadband. But that’s exactly the opposite of what she was saying.

Sohn made the remark during a local Maryland webcast on June 25, 2020. (One Country provided me with a link to the Facebook Live recording of the event, in which the exchange in question occurs at the 17-minute mark.)

But as with One Country’s selective quoting from Sohn’s January 2020 testimony, here, too, the lobbying group has twisted her words to make them appear to mean be exactly the opposite of what she said.

As in her earlier testimony, Sohn’s target in the webcast was the Trump-era FCC, which was nothing but a cat’s-paw for the telecommunications industry. She pointed to the Republican-dominated ideology of that FCC, which she described as “deregulation should be the focus of the agency, making industry happy, and that somehow the free market will solve all of our problems.”

The harvest of that approach, as she pointed out, was that more than 100 million Americans are left without broadband internet access “at a time when, if you don’t have it, you’re literally screwed — you can’t do your schoolwork … you can’t telework, you can’t connect with family or friends.”

At that moment in the pandemic, she added, lack of broadband access was a public health hazard because “if you don’t have the internet to do those things, you’re going outside to do those things.”

Sohn argued that to bring broadband effectively to poor communities, whether rural or urban, those consumers needed assistance to afford it — government had to make sure that “people who can’t afford broadband access get it, and that schools and libraries in poor areas should be able to also get broadband and be able to make that broadband available to the poor folks in their communities.”

The Trump FCC, however, “loves giving billions and tens of billions of dollars to rural broadband companies to build networks out in rural America,” she said.

“Those networks need to be built,” she said, but the FCC leaders “don’t like giving money to poor people or poor schools and libraries… They have made it as difficult as possible to give out the poor people’s money … and made it really easy for rural broadband companies, which tend to be monopolies, to basically suck at the government teat to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.”

So let’s be clear. Sohn was saying that given the choice between providing low-income citizens with the means to acquire broadband access and providing rich broadband companies with billions of dollars in subsidies, the Trump FCC voted to fatten the companies and did nothing to help their customers actually buy the services they need.

One Country left out Sohn’s observation that the FCC had “made it as difficult as possible” for low-income rural Americans to afford broadband service and distorted her words so she seemed to be attacking rural broadband in general. To put it another way, One Country flat-out lied.

Heitkamp calls Sohn’s view of rural broadband “deeply cynical.” The truth is that it’s Heitkamp who’s the cynical player here.

As Sohn told Republican senators who questioned her about the “government teat” line, her position has long been that the FCC had dropped the ball on overseeing rural broadband rollout.

She urged that the agency “engage in more due diligence in determining whether applicants for government funding had the technical, operational and financial ability to keep their promises … to conduct continuing and in-person oversight to ensure that those who have obtained funding to build broadband networks are indeed building those promised networks; and … to hold accountable those who have not met their promise to build networks.”

Like One Country, the Chamber is also attacking Sohn with thick-sliced baloney. In its screed against Sohn published on March 2, the Chamber hauled out an old mythology about the Obama FCC’s decision to regulate broadband service as a public utility in 2015 produced a decline in private sector broadband investment — in the Chamber’s words, “for the first time outside a national economic slowdown.”

The regulatory change was endorsed by Sohn, and the Chamber’s implication is that placing her on the FCC will return regulation to that standard.

The Chamber cites statistics from USTelecom, the industry’s lobbying arm. Unfortunately for the Chamber, USTelecom’s own figures don’t make that case.

It’s true that overall broadband investment declined from 2015 to 2016 — by about $2.7 billion, or about 3.5%, to $74.8 billion. But it’s incorrect to say there wasn’t a national economic slowdown that year. There was: U.S. economic growth slowed in that time frame to 1.7% from 3.08% in 2016.

As I reported in 2017, Comcast NBCUniversal, the biggest broadband company, spent $7.6 billion on “cable network infrastructure” in 2016 up about 8% from $7 billion spent in 2015. AT&T recorded $21.5 billion in capital expenditures in 2016, 12% higher than the $19.2 billion it spent in 2015.

In other words, key broadband companies were raising broadband investment vigorously, despite what the Chamber says. By the way, broadband investment slumped from 2018 to 2019, while Trump’s rollback of telecom regulation was in full cry, by even more in dollar terms than in 2015-2016. It’s a volatile trend line, and any special interest group that tries to use it to make a claim about the economic ills of better regulation is blowing smoke.

But that may not matter to a Congress that can be so easily hypnotized by lies purveyed by special interests. Gigi Sohn’s nomination to the FCC is hanging by a thread thanks to political deceit. That’s the best sign yet that she must be confirmed, and urgently.


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