'Infuriating': Telecom lobbyists spending big money to keep Gigi Sohn off FCC
Consumer rights defenders are warning that telecom companies and lobbyists are taking advantage of the U.S. Senate's delay in confirming Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pressure corporate Democrats to vote against the longtime public advocate.
"There's an unseemly amount of money being spent to promote disinformation about her," Greg Guice, director of government affairs for Public Knowledge, the group founded by Sohn, told MarketWatch this week. "These criticisms aren't based in fact whatsoever."
As Karl Bode wrote at Techdirt last week, former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's rural-focused non-profit group recently launched a $250,000 social media ad campaign targeting at least two Democrats who have not yet confirmed how they plan to vote on Sohn's confirmation, even though it would give the party three of the five FCC seats for the first time in six years and would end the current deadlock.
The group's ads are aimed at Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), neither of whom have indicated how they will vote on Sohn's nomination and both of whom are facing reelection campaigns in November. Politico has reported that Heitkamp is also running ads in West Virginia, where right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin was "undecided" on Sohn after meeting her.
Heitkamp's group, the One Country Project, is claiming that Sohn has been insufficiently committed to improving broadband access in rural communities, pointing to congressional testimony in which she said Congress has been "disproportionately focused on broadband deployment in rural areas."
As Chris Matthews wrote at MarketWatch, Sohn's testimony didn't "argue that the federal government shouldn't fund broadband deployment, but that the main hurdle for Americans accessing broadband in both rural and urban areas is affordability, not infrastructure."
Heitkamp started One Country Project with "leftover campaign cash" to start her political action committee, Matthews noted, and counted AT&T and Comcast as two of her biggest donors when she was in the Senate.
"Telecom monopolies are now terrified that the Sohn appointment won't just break 2-2 commissioner gridlock (they created) at the agency, it will mean the restoration of meaningful federal oversight over one of the least popular and least competitive industries in the Internet ecosystem," wrote Bode at Techdirt.
Andrew Lokay, an analyst with independent policy research firm Beacon Policy Advisors, told MarketWatch that opponents of Sohn in the telecom industry appear to be "taking advantage of Biden's delay in nominating Sohn and the crowded Senate calendar in an attempt to sink her nomination."
Craig Aaron, president of media and technology advocacy group Free Press, accused the telecom industry and its allies of waging a "dishonest astroturf campaign" against Sohn and called the effort to derail the nomination of a strong net neutrality defender "infuriating."
This is infuriating.\n\nMore infuriating is the idea that any Democratic senator would fall for it.\n\nGigi Sohn is incredibly qualified for this job.\n\nShe's not bought by Comcast or AT&T. Can't say the same for her critics.https://www.marketwatch.com/story/broadband-companies-are-spending-an-unseemly-amount-of-money-to-sink-key-nominee-to-fcc-critics-allege-11650914134?link=MW_latest_news\u00a0\u2026— Craig Aaron (@Craig Aaron) 1650998055
In addition to One Country Project's efforts, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)—which has long partnered with AT&T—published an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star earlier this month accusing Sohn of having a "deeply problematic track record on media diversity issues."
The group wrote that as a senior staffer at the FCC, Sohn "masterminded a plan to give Google a government permission slip to steal, repackage and monetize TV programming without paying one cent to its creators"—a move which angered "diverse creators" and lawmakers over "how her proposal would impact vulnerable, underrepresented communities."
In fact, Bode wrote, "the FCC's goal was to kill the cable box monopoly and save consumers about $20 billion annually in bullshit rental fees," adding that "framing it as a handout to 'big tech' is an intentional misrepresentation."
LULAC denied to MarketWatch that its opposition to Sohn has anything to do with its relationship with AT&T, and the company said it has not donated any money directly to One Country Project.
But as Bode argued, "Sohn's so popular, and the goals of telecom monopolies (less competition, more revenue, no oversight) are so viciously unpopular, they've been forced to fabricate flimsy complaints and funnel them through proxy organizations in a bid to derail the popular nomination."
"If Sohn's nomination is scuttled, it will come at the hands of Senators Joe Manchin, Catherine Cortez Masto, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), or Mark Kelly, who will, not coincidentally, parrot the false justifications for opposing Sohn's nomination concocted by the telecom lobby," Bode added.
"It will leave a permanent and violent scar on the political and policy landscape," he added, "loudly advertising once again that the voice of the public (which overwhelmingly supports holding telecom and media giants meaningfully accountable) simply doesn't matter in our purported democracy."