President Joe Biden’s nominations of Jessica Rosenworcel to become the full time chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Gigi Sohn to be a commissioner at the agency, would create—if they are confirmed—a solid majority at the agency that supports net neutrality rules.
Biden was urged to fill out the agency—by both naming a permanent chair and a third Democratic commissioner to fill out the five-person agency—for months, with observers noting that every month he delayed a pick, it pushed back any agenda from being rolled out.
Now, once Rosenworcel and Sohn go through the confirmation process, the FCC will have a trio of Democratic lawmakers who have been vocal about restoring the rules when coupled with Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.
But besides the rules of prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, throttling, or engaging in paid prioritization of internet traffic, they also have been vocal about needing the commission to have authority to oversee the broadband industry under Title II of the Communications Act.
That support could signal a swift look toward reviving the rules once they are confirmed. Biden’s administration encouraged the FCC to restore net neutrality under Title II earlier this year as part of a sweeping executive order.
The nominations have already drawn rave reviews from observers, experts, and at least one senator.
Gigi Sohn on net neutrality
Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, a Benton Senior Fellow & Public Advocate, and former FCC counselor, has been a long-time advocate for net neutrality. She also co-founded Public Knowledge, a prominent advocacy group.
In an interview with the Daily Dot earlier this year, Sohn particularly stressed the need for the FCC to regain its authority over the broadband industry, saying it was “the first thing the FCC needs to do” once it was fully staffed.
That sentiment seems to be shared by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who cheered the nominations in a tweet on Tuesday, and added the “first order of business” for the agency should be to “revive net neutrality and reclassify broadband under Title II.”
“The courts have told us you can’t have real net neutrality unless the agency has Title II authority. So that’s the first thing the FCC has to do. That of course gives them not only the power to adopt new net neutrality rules, it gives them the power to adopt new privacy rules if they want to,” Sohn said in a March interview.
Sohn also touched on the potential of a net neutrality bill making its way through Congress—something Markey has repeatedly promised he would introduce once Biden finalized the makeup of the FCC.
“I’m hoping there comes a point where the industry says ‘Oh boy, we better cut our losses’ and get a bill in Congress. That would not just only be net neutrality, but would also include undeniable, inarguable, authority over broadband,” Sohn said at the time. “I think it’s important for that law to have explicit authority, and I hope it would be broad, but also expressly give the FCC the ability to adopt net neutrality rules or lay out what the rules should be.”
Mark Stanley, the director of operations at Demand Progress, told the Daily Dot on Tuesday that Sohn’s nomination was something like what they were looking for earlier this year when the organization and numerous others launched a petition urging Biden to fill out the FCC with someone who had the public interest in mind and didn’t have ties to the telecom industry.
That petition was signed by more than 100,000 people.
“Her track record working for the public interest, standing up for consumers, standing up for the public against the interests of big cable is really strong. I feel very good about that nomination,” Stanley said. “The key for us was nominees who didn’t have that tech connection or that professional background working for telecom and corporate interests, and instead had a background that clearly demonstrated a concern and a championing of public interest and consumer rights. I think in that sense, both of these nominees meet those expectations.”
Meanwhile, Matt Wood, the vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press Action, told the Daily Dot on Thursday that Sohn’s background in public interest groups will aid her as a commissioner at the agency, noting that she had a “depth of personal and professional experience across everything the FCC is going to be doing.”
“I’ve known Gigi for 10 years now, and obviously she was doing this before that, and she was not the first person to conceive of a public interest media … but I think it’s fair to say she took that to another level, and really made a career before she went to the FCC … but she was very effective there at really doing nothing but advocating for the public interest,” Wood said. “So it’s nothing but a good thing that somebody who knows the industry, and knows the space as well, and yet has always come at it with those same set of principles of bringing people’s voices into the debate is getting this kind of recognition.”
Jessica Rosenworcel on net neutrality
Rosenworcel, who was named acting chair of the FCC by Biden in January, has been a commissioner since 2012. During that time, she has repeatedly advocated for net neutrality, and was extremely vocal in her opposition to the FCC’s 2017 repeal of the rules under then-Chairman Ajit Pai.
Her support of the rules is a good indication of how the FCC might proceed, as the chair of the agency sets the agenda for it moving forward.
In her dissent against the repeal in 2017, Rosenworcel said the repeal was “on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.” She also said the 2015 Open Internet Order, which enshrined net neutrality rules and gave the FCC authority over broadband under Title II of the Communications Act, had “passed court muster.”
“So our existing net neutrality policies have passed court muster. They are wildly popular. But today we wipe away this work, destroy this progress, and burn down time-tested values that have made our internet economy the envy of the world,” she said in her dissent.
She also has endorsed congressional efforts to restore the rules and the agency’s authority.
In May 2019, Rosenworcel said the FCC created a “mess” when it repealed the rules and endorsed the Save the Internet Act, a bill that would have restored net neutrality. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in April 2019, but languished in the then-Republican controlled Senate.
“She has a strong track record on Title II, on affordable broadband, on really key issues that the commission is going to have to tackle. So in that sense, I feel good about the nomination,” Stanley told the Daily Dot.
Wood felt similarly: “She’s voted the right way, and led the way, on things like the Title II process in 2014 alongside her colleagues at the time … We think she has a great track record and a great future too.”
More recently, Rosenworcel reaffirmed her support of net neutrality after Biden signed an executive order that encouraged the agency to restore the rules.
“I am grateful that the president supports net neutrality,” Rosenworcel said in mid-July, according to SPGlobal. “I think it’s an important competition and consumer protection issue.”
‘Dream team’ for the FCC
The nominations of Rosenworcel and Sohn were quickly cheered by public interest groups, who called them a “dream team” and “bold.”
“These nominations will be historic and a clear indication that the Administration is ready to move forward with bold, but experienced leadership in the key agencies dealing with broadband policy. While later than normal, these nominees are the type of skilled leadership that our country needs at this time,” Chris Lewis, the president and CEO of Public Knowledge, said in a statement.
Similarly, Craig Aaron, the co-CEO of Free Press Action, said the nominations of Rosenworcel, Sohn, and Alan Davidson to be the director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was a “dream team for anyone who cares about the future of the internet and the media.”
“While these choices were worth the wait, there’s no time to waste and so much to get done: ensuring the billions being invested in broadband actually reach those who need it most, restoring net neutrality and Title II, reckoning with media regulators’ history on race and repairing the damage of the Trump years. We urge the Senate to move as quickly as possible to advance all of these nominees,” Aaron said.
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