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.
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 far-left 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.
Though 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 moderate Democrats who were already 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.
The Biden administration defended its efforts to push Sohn’s nomination through the Senate.
“Our team won confirmation of nearly 800 nominees in a 50-50 Senate last session,” White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said in a statement. “We also worked tirelessly to move Gigi’s nomination and fought for her.”
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 around her 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.
Consumer and digital rights advocates are wary that the FCC will be neutered at a critical moment and warn that Biden’s next nominee may face similar, insurmountable obstacles.
“It’s never been about Gigi Sohn,” said Falcon, the Electronic Frontier Foundation counsel. “It’s always been about preventing the FCC from doing its job.”