1 and a Half Years in and Dems Still Havn’t Filled FCC Vacancies, Turns to Net Neutrality Bill Instead

After a year and a half, the FCC nomination process still remains incomplete. So, a bill is in the works to deal with network neutrality.

Back in January, we noted how the last remaining FCC nomination position has remained unfilled. At the time, a nominee was put forward. That nominee was Gigi Sohn. With a year to go to finally complete the nomination process, there still seemed to be time to get this job done and finally get to the business of restoring network neutrality – a critical component to the free and open Internet.

Indeed, you’d think there would be some urgency to filling the vacancy. After all, the only reason American’s still continue to enjoy network neutrality is thanks largely (if not exclusively) to the California lawsuit that, mercifully, is going California’s way for the time being. What’s more is that the importance of the Internet today has become much greater thanks to previous lockdowns from COVID-19.

Yet, here we are, a year and a half later, and the story hasn’t really changed that much. This, understandably, led to complaints about how Democrats have dithered on the issue. From Insider Radio:

Gloria Tristiani, who filled a Democratic seat at the Federal Communications Commission from 1997 to 2001, is slamming the delays faced by Gigi Sohn as she looks to do the same. President Biden nominated Sohn for an FCC vacancy last October and, after a bumpy committee review process, her nomination has been stalled on the Senate floor since March with no sign that a vote is close at hand.

“Democratic leaders have dithered and delayed,” says Tristani, accusing lawmakers of allowing industry critics and Republicans of successfully kowtowing Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) into bringing Sohn’s nomination up for a vote. “Of course, the broadcast, cable and phone companies don’t want the FCC to function, so they’ve launched a smear campaign against Sohn, misrepresenting her record repeatedly and dispatching an army of lobbyists to disparage her,” writes Tristani in an op-ed in the New York Daily News, with Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Sohn Free Press Action. “The Democratic delays are hurting both the party and the American people,” they say.

Not all broadcasters oppose Sohn’s nomination, however. The National Association of Broadcasters – which initially said it had “serious concerns” that the ethics agreement submitted by Sohn would not do enough to separate her from what it called a “clear and troubling” conflict of interest – has since reversed course. It got behind Sohn’s nomination in January after she agreed to recuse herself temporarily from a pair of broadcast regulatory issues that are critical to local TV station revenue.

But with every Republican opposed to seating Sohn, the prospects for her confirmation rest with Democratic unity and a tie-breaking vote from the Vice President. Tristani and Gonzalez think the “small set of holdouts” in Congress will not commit until a vote is called. “And so Sohn waits as the midterm elections inch closer, and the Democrats risk losing power in Congress,” they say.

MediaJustice recently called for Sohn to be put through the nomination finally as well. From NextTV:

Advocacy group MediaJustice is calling for the “urgent” confirmation of Gigi Sohn to the fifth seat on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, with only two weeks before Congress adjourns for its August recess.

The group cited her advocacy for communications equity, as well as for net neutrality rules.

Unless Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) schedules a vote to discharge Sohn’s nomination from the Senate Commerce Committee, which failed to favorably report her out of the panel, then holds a vote on the nomination itself before that August recess, the chances she will get confirmed and installed to provide for a full commission and are slim at best. MediaJustice conceded those prospects are waning, which is why they say it is urgent to confirm within the next two weeks.

“For over a year, Congressional leadership has left us without a functioning Federal Communications Commission capable of addressing the harms of digital discrimination and digital redlining,” MediaJustice executive director Steven Renderos said.

MediaJustice comprises more than 100 organizations whose goal is to advance communications access for various underrepresented groups — low-income, minorities, the incarcerated. It said Sohn has worked toward such advancement in her past life as a top aide Tom Wheeler, the FCC‘s chair during President Barack Obama’s second term. The group is also a big fan of net-neutrality rules that Sohn stumped for while at the FCC and when she headed Public Knowledge.

“Gigi Sohn has dedicated her career to defending the public interest, bringing the voice of everyday people into what were once closed-door meetings regarding communications and technology policy,“ Renderos said. ”Congress must take action and confirm Sohn as FCC Commissioner now.”

So, the push to finally bring back network neutrality remains at the starting gate, waiting for vacancies to be filled. American’s have long awaited this issue to finally be corrected and all they got out of it to date was a stalled process.

Weirdly enough, it seems that some Democrats have initiated efforts to implement a sort of “Plan B” in all of this. That “Plan B” is apparently to table legislation to restore network neutrality. Some have said that such efforts are effectively doomed to fail. That is, admittedly, understandable given that there’s, what? Six months left before midterms? At the best of times, that is a rather tight deadline to draft a law, get it through Congress, the Senate, and signed by the President. To make matters worse, these are far from the best times. This skepticism was reflected by Karl Bode:

To be clear, putting FCC authority and net neutrality into law is a good idea. The repeal was hugely unpopular corruption-fueled gamesmanship, and having a functioning telecom regulator in a country dominated by monopolies is a good idea, despite what the cult of the telecom industry linked free market Libertarian think tank would like you to believe.

Unfortunately, the bill has little real chance of passing in a corrupt Congress. A Congress in which the entirety of the GOP and several key Democratic Senators (Manchin, Sinema) routinely and dutifully prioritize telecom monopoly revenues over market health or consumer welfare. So why try this now? Somebody told the Post the hope is to shame Republicans into owning their policy inconsistencies:

Some net neutrality advocates also think Republican calls to designate social media companies as common carriers could make their positions more untenable, the person said.

The GOP opposed FCC oversight of telecom because they wanted to protect AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon revenues. They supported FCC oversight of social media because they wanted to punish “big tech” for belatedly, sloppily, reining in hate speech and GOP party propaganda online. There was layer upon layer of bullshit used to obfuscate these two, basic self-serving truths.

I don’t know what the response to this kind of corrupt bullshit is, beyond organizing block-by-block to unseat lawmakers that routinely show they don’t actually care about consumers or healthy markets. I guess proposing a bill you know won’t pass might help highlight the hypocrisy? But the press and public are so tuned out on the net neutrality debate in the “big tech” era — I’m not sure it will even register in the summer news cycle.

So it likely won’t get much attention. It doesn’t have the votes. And “Let’s propose a bill that has zero chance of passing a grotesquely corrupt Congress, because this will somehow shame the shameless GOP into owning their hypocrisy” is a weird gambit Democrats really enjoy spending calories on, despite minimal returns.

So, because of all of this, it is looking increasingly doubtful that network neutrality will finally get restored during the midterms. It’s fair to say that lawmakers really dropped the ball on this critical and important issue. This puts even more emphasis on the California network neutrality lawsuit. Essentially, that lawsuit is about the only thing separating a free and open Internet and an Internet completely controlled by the big telecom industry in the US. The latter of which means that smaller, independent websites would be effectively ordered to pay ransoms for big ISPs to not slow lane them to death all the while the ISPs own services get the preferential treatment.

At best, a state level lawsuit, if successful, would promise a patchwork system. You might get a free and open Internet in some states, but in other states, you might have free market hating Republican’s who have decided that profits made on the Internet should just be redirected to the likes of Comcast or AT&T.

This, of course, has much wider implications for the entire world. Since so much traffic comes from US sources for many websites, the idea that some parts of the country would suddenly get discouraged from going to your site is, indeed, worrying. Yes, California has some huge population numbers to help mitigate the damage, but there will be some damage being dealt sooner or later. Luckily, we are in a legal holding pattern in all of this, but that holding pattern isn’t going to last forever. The more time that is burned by Democrats, the less hope there is for the free and open Internet to continue to thrive. That will hurt everyone somewhere along the line.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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