No one should be surprised that telecommunications companies revved up opposition to the 2021 nomination of Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission. After all, Sohn was known as an effective critic of the industry’s monopoly power and a defender of the public interest.
Nor was it surprising that the industry would attack Sohn with lies — after all, that’s what corporate lobbyists do for a living. So far, the industry has succeeded in tying up Sohn’s nomination for nearly two years. Thanks to Senate procedures, President Biden has had to submit her name three times, most recently in January, and she has received two hearings.
The hold-up has prevented the FCC from addressing crucial issues because it’s locked in a 2-2 Democratic-Republican tie (with two Trump appointees); Sohn would give the body a 3-2 Democratic majority, enough to undo some of the anti-consumer steps undertaken under Trump’s chairman, Ajit Pai.
Democrats can’t claim to support LGBTQ rights while failing to stand up to blatant bigotry targeting one of their own nominees.
— Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
But in the last couple of weeks, the attack on Sohn, 61, who would be the first LGBTQ member of the FCC, has taken a grotesquely ugly turn. An obviously coordinated campaign fronted by such right-wing enterprises as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Mail has painted Sohn as a supporter of sex trafficking and an opponent of anti-sex trafficking initiatives.
The core of this loathsome assault is that Sohn serves on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF is a prominent nonprofit devoted to protecting user privacy and freedom of expression online.
Sohn joined the EFF board, which includes leading academics from UC Berkeley and Harvard, digital entrepreneurs such as Brewster Kahle, and experts in digital security and telecommunications law, in 2018.
Sohn’s association with EFF is what has put her in the crosshairs of the far right. Among the EFF’s targets, you see, is a pair of laws known as FOSTA/SESTA, which were enacted in 2018 during a Congressional panic over online child sex trafficking.
FOSTA/SESTA — the acronyms stand for the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — have proven to be largely ineffective for their stated purpose and rife with adverse side effects. More on that in a moment.
In their attacks, all published on Jan. 26 and 27, Fox, Breitbart and the Mail used almost identical headlines stating that Sohn “sits on [the] board” of EFF. All tried to link her with Danielle Blunt, a professional dominatrix who has been in the forefront of organized opposition to FOSTA/SESTA and support for the rights of sex workers, and who received an award from EFF in 2020 for her efforts to fight online censorship.
What’s important here is that Sohn has never spoken about FOSTA/SESTA, and in any event, the FCC has absolutely nothing to do with the laws or their purpose. The commission doesn’t regulate online advertising, and FOSTA/SESTA doesn’t apply to telecommunications.
That exposes the effort to link Sohn to the targets of FOSTA/SESTA and paint her as an advocate of sex trafficking as nothing but a cynical political ploy, with an acrid undercurrent of homophobia.
What may be even more appalling is that, to date, Democrats haven’t yet called out the perpetrators of this campaign.
“If they remain silent and complicit, this will become a go-to strategy to tank LGBTQ nominees to any public position,” says Evan Greer, director of the digital rights organization Fight for the Future. “Democrats can’t claim to support LGBTQ rights while failing to stand up to blatant bigotry targeting one of their own nominees.”
The defense of Sohn’s nomination has fallen to her supporters outside the political mainstream. The EFF, in a Jan. 31 statement, decried what it labeled an “attempt to twist EFF’s long-held positions and commitments into dog whistles against Ms. Sohn.”
A resounding note of defense was sounded by Preston Padden, a former executive of Fox, ABC and the Walt Disney Co., who has supported Sohn’s nomination even though, as he observes, their political outlooks are poles apart.
In a letter to Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which is planning yet a third hearing on Sohn’s nomination, Padden condemned the latest campaign as “beneath scurrilous” and “the most cynical and baseless smear campaign ever waged against a nominee to serve on the FCC.”
This “‘Tabloid Trash’ at its worst,” as Padden labeled it, is “all brought to you, I believe, by agents of some of the country’s biggest Cable Companies and ISPs” (Internet Service Providers).
I’ve reached out to Verizon and Comcast, leaders in the industries Padden named, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been prominent in the opposition to Sohn’s nomination, but haven’t heard back.
The attack on Sohn is one in a line of concerted attacks on Biden nominees feared by big business because of their likely effectiveness. It follows attacks on Lina Khan, who survived a business onslaught to become chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and on David Weil, a pro-labor attorney who was driven to withdraw from consideration for a key Department of Labor post last year because of relentless business opposition.
As I reported last year, the telecommunications industry’s opposition to Sohn’s was based on her superb qualifications and her record as a consumer advocate. She was a top aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration, when the agency took a distinctly pro-consumer stance.
Subsequently she co-founded and led Public Knowledge, a telecommunications consumer advocacy organization. She’s held fellowships at USC and an adjunct professorship at Georgetown and is widely respected all along the ideological spectrum.
Among the supporters of Sohn’s nomination, in fact, have been such a pillar of right-wing telecommunications as Newsmax commentator Bradley Blakeman. He wrote in favor of Sohn’s confirmation in November 2021, noting that although he and Sohn hold diametrically opposing political views, “I trust Gigi to get it right when it comes to protecting my freedom of speech.”
Around the same time, One America President Charles Herring wrote on OANN’s website in support of Sohn’s confirmation, stating that Sohn “believes in the First Amendment and the advantages of a strong and open media for the benefit of our democracy.”
(Herring’s endorsement drew an on-air pushback from his father, Robert Herring Sr., the network’s founder. He disavowed his son’s endorsement, which was subsequently scrubbed from the OANN website and replaced by a screed labeling Sohn as an “enemy of the free press.”)
The industry’s original campaign against Sohn relied on gross misrepresentations of her speeches and writings to paint her as an enemy of diversity in telecommunications and an advocate of suppressing conservative viewpoints.
In actuality, Sohn has been a strong supporter of diversity — demographically and ideologically, which accounted for her support from Newsmax and OANN. Last year, an industry-linked front group spent $250,000 on an ad campaign that flagrantly twisted Sohn’s words to smear her as an opponent of rural broadband, a fabricated and absurd charge.
As for the latest campaign, it relies on a knee-jerk assumption that Congress’ effort to eradicate online sex trafficking is worthy of admiration and support, despite the shortcomings of FOSTA/SESTA.
The laws were signed in 2018, shortly after the government shut down Backpage.com, a website used by sex workers to connect with clients but also, according to congressional investigators and law enforcement, used by sex traffickers. The laws essentially carved out sex-related advertisements as exceptions to the safeguards of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which renders online platforms immune from liability for user-posted content.
Blunt and others maintain that FOSTA/SESTA increased the dangers for sex workers by censoring online platforms they used to safely screen clients. The laws forced many back to making assignations on the street or through pimps.
Working online gave sex workers “more autonomy over their labor and reduced the need to work under pimps and exploitative management,” according to a report co-written by Blunt and issued by hacking//hustling, a sex worker collective she co-founded.
Criticism of FOSTA/SESTA has also come from the Government Accountability Office, surely among the most buttoned-down of government agencies, which reported in 2021 that “gathering tips and evidence to investigate and prosecute those who control or use online platforms has become more difficult” since the laws’ enactment, “due to the relocation of platforms overseas, platforms’ use of complex payment systems, and the increased use of social media platforms.”
Prosecutors had avoided using the laws’ stringent criminal provisions, the GAO found, in part because pre-existing laws were already useful enough.
The right-wing attack on Sohn leans heavily on the prurient elements of sex work generally and Blunt particularly. In nearly identical phrasing, Breitbart and the Daily Mail noted that Blunt “boasts about urinating on people’s faces.”
Leaving aside the question of what one might imagine would be among a dominatrix’s services, what in heaven’s name does this have to do with Gigi Sohn’s qualifications to serve on the FCC? The answer is nothing.
What is the Senate waiting for? Sohn’s accession to the FCC has been held up long enough, and the longer it remains in suspension, the harder it will be for a Democratic majority on the commission to get cracking with the important work of upholding net neutrality on the web, keeping cable operators and other ISPs from taking advantage of consumers and narrowing content choice online.
Let’s start hearing Democrats calling this latest line of attack for what it is: A disgraceful, bigoted effort designed, at its core, to keep the big bucks flowing to big business as it tightens its grip on the digital world.
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