Recap: Sohn, Davidson Nomination Hearing

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to consider the nominations of Gigi Sohn to be a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission and Alan Davidson to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Sohn has a history of advocating for open and affordable communications networks. She is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a Senior Fellow and Public Advocate at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Between 2003 and 2016, Sohn served as a counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Davidson is currently a senior advisor at the Mozilla Foundation, a global nonprofit that promotes openness on the internet. He served in the Obama administration as the first director of Digital Economy at the Department of Commerce. And he started Google’s public policy office in Washington (DC) in 2005, leading government relations there until 2012.

During her opening statement, Sohn said if confirmed, she would serve on the FCC during a “critical” time in the country and would work to advance universal connectivity in the U.S. and close the country’s gap between those who have access to affordable high-speed internet and those who don’t. During the hearing, Sohn also stressed the importance of upgrading FCC’s broadband maps to be more accurate.

Throughout her career, Sohn has been an advocate of net neutrality rules that prevent broadband providers from blocking, throttling, or favoring internet content. Sohn frequently repeated her support for reinstating such rules that were rescinded under the Trump administration.

Sohn seemed to face the toughest questioning, mainly for Republicans on the committee. “All who know her would agree she is knowledgeable and a determined advocate,” Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) said in his opening statement about Sohn. “I am concerned about her record of expressing hyper-partisan views on many critical matters that have come before the commission and which may come before the commission again in the future.”

Sohn mainly had to answer for some posts she made on Twitter. She handled the grilling skillfully and confidently, conceded her tweets might have been a bit too sharp. But she didn’t back off from them, saying that was part of her job as an advocate. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) asked Sohn about comments she made in the past about Fox News, including a tweet from 2020: “For all my concerns about #Facebook, I believe that Fox News has had the most negative impact on our democracy. It's state-sponsored propaganda, with few if any opposing viewpoints. Where's the hearing about that?” Sen Sullivan said, “You are clearly indicating your bias against more conservative news sources, and yet you are now up for confirmation at one of the most powerful positions in America on free speech? I think that disqualifies you completely." Sohn responded that the comments she tweeted were made in the context of a hearing that took place about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a controversial provision which provides a liability shield for tech companies over content posted on their sites by third parties. Sen Sullivan said he was uninterested in hearing about context. “As a public interest advocate, as part of my job, those were my words, those were my opinions, but they would have no bearing on how I would act if I was confirmed as an FCC commissioner,” Sohn said. Whatever her opinions, she said, as a commissioner she would put those aside and look at the totality of circumstances of any particular instance and decide accordingly. [Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) raised similar concerns.

Sen. Wicker asked Sohn about her support for network neutrality, and another of those sharp comments, that Sen. Wicker himself had spread "disinfo" about the issue. Sohn said what she had been talking about was the senator’s position that net neutrality rules she supported discouraged investment because there was evidence that was not the case. The rules had no negative impact on broadband investment, something operators themselves told Wall Street.

Sen. Wicker asked Sohn what bad things had happened under the FCC’s “light-touch” regulatory approach, after the agency under Trump-era chairman Ajit Pai voted to eliminate the Wheeler FCC’s rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. Sohn said there was some evidence of such blocking and throttling, but that the bigger issue was that it was no-touch, rather than light-touch, due to the reclassification of internet service providers as information services under Title I of the Communications Act.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) requested yes or no answers to questions, including if the Pai FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules in any way stopped the commission from its broadband deployment mission. Sohn answered, "No." Sen Blackburn asked, if the FCC were to reclassify internet access under Title II, forbearing from rate regulation, couldn’t a future FCC just "un-forbear"? Sohn said, "Yes." Asked whether she supported broadband rate regulation, Sohn said, "No."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asked Sohn about the affordability requirement in Biden administration broadband subsidy programs overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and whether it wasn’t essentially rate regulation. Sohn said that was more in NTIA’s wheelhouse. But she said that affordability did not necessarily equate with rate regulation.

Not all Republicans on the committee appeared opposed to Sohn's nomination. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) said he was impressed by Sohn’s experience and intellect and that he was pleased by her emphasis on collaborative skills. Sohn pointed out that she had reached out to her Republican colleagues at the FCC—when she was a top adviser to Chairman Wheeler—and that for her, policy differences are not personal.

Senators have until Monday, Dec. 6, to submit written questions and the witnesses will have a week to respond. A committee vote on confirmation will not happen before that.

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