Senators Should Press FCC Nominees on Net Neutrality Regulations

This week, President Joe Biden announced the nominations of Jessica Rosenworcel to head the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Gigi Sohn to fill the fifth commissioner position. The FCC was operating with a 2-2 split among Democrats and Republicans, and absent any action, would have shifted to a 2-1 Republican majority once Acting Chair Rosenworcel’s term expired at the end of the year. With President Biden’s announcement, Democrats will likely avoid being in the minority at the agency, but the previous positions of these nominees warrant scrutiny from lawmakers.

For some, the nomination of Jessica Rosenworcel was overdue. She enjoys support on the Hill, including from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and is viewed as a more moderate nominee for the agency. As Acting Chair of a 2-2 split at the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel was still able to work across the aisle on common-sense issues with Republican Commissioners. However, the nomination of Gigi Sohn and the potential for a 3-2 Democratic majority at the FCC could mark a stark change for the agency.

While Rosenworcel may be seen as a more moderate pick, Gigi Sohn is certainly not. She served as adviser to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who led the disastrous push to implement onerous Title II net neutrality regulations. In July, President Biden’s executive order called for the FCC to restore the harmful net neutrality regulations but was stymied by the evenly divided agency. With news of Gigi Sohn’s nomination to the FCC, pro-net neutrality groups are already pressing for the return of these burdensome regulations. Reclassifying internet service providers would give the FCC substantial flexibility to regulate the internet independently of Congress. As policymakers and regulators continue to focus on closing the digital divide, the return of these unnecessary regulations would be a big step in the wrong direction.

Lawmakers should ensure the FCC does not follow a similar partisan path as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under Lina Khan. Reports point to Sohn as having nearly been chosen as the FCC Chair, which could have shaped the agency in the same mold as Chair Khan’s aggressive FTC. While it may seem like a positive development that Rosenworcel was chosen to lead the FCC rather than the more progressive Gigi Sohn, Rosenworcel will likely be reliant on Sohn’s support. Sohn’s past partisan remarks should give Senators pause on the ramifications of Sohn’s confirmation for the future of the agency. As the expression goes, personnel is policy.

The nominations of Rosenworcel and Sohn may be welcome news for progressives, but it’s not a done deal. The Senate still needs to confirm these nominees, while balancing their other legislative priorities like reconciliation, funding the government, infrastructure, and raising the debt ceiling. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, stated her desire to “swiftly” consider these nominees before the end of the year, but the Senate should not rush through the process. On behalf of consumers and taxpayers, members should press Rosenworcel, and especially Sohn, on important issues like Title II net neutrality regulations and broadband price controls. Access to affordable broadband has become increasingly important during the pandemic and it is more important than ever for lawmakers to ensure the agency will not revert to heavy-handed internet regulations and failed partisan ideas that would leave consumers worse off.