WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today announced a full committee hearing at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 9, 2022, to consider the following nomination:
- Gigi Sohn, to be a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (PN1536)
*Agenda subject to change
Full Committee Hearing
10:00 a.m. ET
Wednesday, February 9, 2022
Committee Hearing Room, Russell 253
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Chair Maria Cantwell
“Good morning, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will come to order. We're here today to consider the nomination of Gigi Sohn to be Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Ms. Sohn, thank you for appearing again before the committee. And for your continued commitment to serve.
“Many members will remember that Ms. Sohn appeared already before the committee, and she has graciously come back to answer questions and communicate with members. I think it shows the kind of transparent and open process that she would have as commissioner of the FCC. It's a step that most people probably wouldn't do, but I think it speaks highly of her and the way that she believes in conducting herself. So, thank you, Ms. Sohn, verymuch for that. I want to also thank members for trying to address these issues.
“The Federal Communications Commission is a very important organization. We all know that there are important issues there that affect the daily lives of many people. For example, the Commission is trying to be more aggressive about unwanted robocalls and text messaging and the laws that companies should be complying with to report data breaches earlier so consumers know in real time about the threat to their personal information.
“The pandemic has demonstrated how essential broadband is in the 21st century economy and the importance of the FCC’s COVID-19 telehealth program, emergency broadband connectivity, and the fund to keep people connected to their doctors.
“The FCC is critical to making sure that funding in the COVID relief law gets to schools, and libraries, and children. And Ranking Member Wicker and I have also been focused on getting our broadband mapping updated.
“So, we really have no time to waste. No time to waste in an information age of getting an FCC Commissioner to help us on these issues of high-quality internet services to rural communities; to getting access to millions of Americans; to updating our broadband maps and the legislation that was passed in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“With Ms. Sohn, we couldn’t have a more qualified person. Thirty years of experience working on telecommunications policy, including senior adviser to Chairman Wheeler at the FCC. She's a prominent voice in the telecommunications arena, leading the charge on accessible and affordable broadband, consumer protection, and competition.
“She has demonstrated a track record of convening a broad range of stakeholders from both sides of the aisle to achieve these goals. As a founder and leader of a nonprofit organization, she has shepherded a new era of advocacy of telecommunications policy in the information age, and has been in the middle of every major debate that has transpired in the shaping of the regulatory framework on these important policy issues.
“So, Ms. Sohn’s nomination, I also believe, is historic, being the first openly gay commissioner on the FCC, another milestone and diversity that is so important, I think, in inclusion and talking about issues.
“Ms. Sohn's nomination has been lauded by many individual groups on both sides of the aisle. She's supported by more than 200 organizations and people across the political spectrum, including advocates for the deaf, library associations, civil rights, community media, workers’ rights, consumer advocacy companies, and trade associations. Her appeal is also bipartisan, including members of conservative immediate organizations and legislators from various states across the United States. I know I have heard from people in my state legislature, so I'm not surprised if other members here have also heard from them as well.
“Ms. Sohn would be the first to tell you, she does have opinions, and you have strong beliefs and have been fighting for them over the decades. Many people who seek these jobs also have strong opinions. I have been one who has had to vote for many people where I might have disagreed with their opinions or some statement they made while serving in a different capacity. Ms. Sohn will lend her decades-long expertise to important issues and guidance that FCC needs to tackle in these issues.
“… [W]e have been very accommodating on working with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Our colleagues asked for more time before Ms. Sohn's original hearing. We granted that. Members asked for this hearing. And I would just say to individuals, I know that many of you either did not meet with Ms. Sohn or maybe in the QFRs had questions. So that's why we're here today to answer those questions. So, I appreciate, again, her willingness.
“And on an additional note, our outpouring of love at the last hearing to Senator Lujan. I got a text from him yesterday. He very much looks forward to rejoining us and sends his love back to the committee.
“With that, I will turn it over to the Ranking Member.”
Ranking Member Roger Wicker
Thank you, Senator Cantwell, and it is nice to have a good report from our friend Ben Ray Luján. We certainly wish him well and look forward to seeing him soon. Thank you for holding this extremely important hearing to consider further the nomination of Ms. Gigi Sohn to be a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). I want to express my appreciation to Senator Cantwell for working with me and for agreeing to my request for an additional hearing.
Let me begin by stressing that although I disagree with Ms. Sohn on a number of policy matters, such as rate regulation, I do not intend to discuss those disagreements today. Perhaps other will, but I do not. I will also note that this hearing is not about obstructing a nominee. Many members on this side of the dais have voted to report many, many nominees out of this committee favorably under President Biden, including a nominee to the FCC. It gives me no pleasure to say that my reason for being here today is to discuss outstanding questions about Ms. Sohn’s fitness and ability to serve as a Commissioner, particularly in light of developments that occurred after our hearing on December 1st of last year.
Some of the matters that require further examination include Ms. Sohn’s service on the board of Sports Fans Coalition New York, Inc., as well as the settlement agreement that this entity and its directors reached with several broadcasters regarding its illegal Locast service. Additionally, a number of questions surround Ms. Sohn’s recently released voluntary recusal letter, which would bar her from participating in the FCC’s retransmission consent and television copyright matters for at least three, and possibly four, years. I expect my colleagues will have additional matters they would like to discuss with Ms. Sohn in today’s hearing.
The settlement agreement between Sports Fans Coalition New York, Inc., and broadcasters is troubling for many reasons. Broadcasters had accused Sports Fans Coalition New York, Inc., of infringing on their copyrights in the operation of the Locast service. Yet the parties settled this dispute, with the coalition agreeing to pay just $700,000 of the $32 million in “statutory damages” they reportedly owed. I recognize that settlement agreements are common in litigation, but a settlement for a fraction of the statutory damages stands out. Ms. Sohn has not been forthcoming about this settlement. I have in my hand questions for the record. When I asked her about the source of the $32 million settlement, she did not acknowledge that it had been reduced to $700,000, which raises questions as to what else she is not revealing about this litigation.
What also makes this settlement troubling is that Ms. Sohn and most of the other parties signed the agreement one day after President Biden announced his intent to nominate her to the FCC. This timing raises questions:
- Did the parties know that in settling a claim for 2% [1/50th] of the amount of statutory damages, they were settling with a future FCC Commissioner?
- Did the White House know of the forthcoming settlement when deciding the timing of Ms. Sohn’s nomination announcement?
- Did any of these factors influence the decision to settle and the amount of the settlement?
- What are the ethical issues of parties accepting a 98 percent reduction, plaintiffs accepting a 98 percent reduction in financial damages before potentially being regulated by Ms. Sohn?
This committee needs clarity on this settlement. We need to know whether it is fully satisfied and whether the directors of Sports Fans Coalition, including Ms. Sohn, remain liable for any part of it. We need to know Ms. Sohn’s role in negotiating the settlement, and whether her nomination affected it in any way.
Further, our December 2021 nominations hearing for Ms. Sohn showed that members on both sides of the aisle have had concerns around her ability to remain impartial on matters related to broadcasters and their content. Two weeks ago, Ms. Sohn sent a letter to the FCC voluntarily recusing herself from any proceeding concerning retransmission consent or television broadcast copyright. However, in a puzzling move, she based this recusal on a single filing at the Commission while she was President of the advocacy group, Public Knowledge. If Ms. Sohn feels that she cannot be viewed as impartial on matters related to this particular filing and docket, should that same rationale extend to the many other matters that Public Knowledge submitted filings on during her tenure? A number of industry associations have expressed a concern that she suffers similar conflicts - or at least the appearance of conflicts - to the one she identified in her recusal letter. Based on Ms. Sohn’s own stated reasoning, it seems to me there may be additional matters from which she would need to recuse herself if she follows this rationale.
In addition to the substantive questions pertaining to this recusal, I am also concerned about the circumstances that led to the drafting and release of the recusal letter. The timing and scope of the recusal raise several questions that I hope we can get answers to today—in particular, who was involved with the formulation of this recusal agreement? Was the support of any individual or entity predicated on the signing of such an agreement? Was this recusal a quid pro quo, as others have asserted? What prompted Ms. Sohn to recuse herself voluntarily—and why now?
Given the importance of the FCC Commissioner position and the need for all Commissioners to participate fully in the agency’s work, I am doubtful that Ms. Sohn’s recusal resolves the outstanding concerns many members still have. A fair assessment would lead one to conclude the public deserves a regulator they can trust to be impartial on all matters, as well as one who can actually do the job for which she was nominated.
Ms. Sohn is a brilliant attorney, and I have noted before that all who know her would agree that she is a knowledgeable and determined advocate. But with these rising complications besetting her potential service as an FCC Commissioner, I question whether she is the best choice to fill this vacancy. There are indeed many other qualified candidates who would not have to recuse themselves and answer questions about legal settlements.
I want to thank Ms. Sohn for appearing before the committee again today, and I await her testimony on these vital issues.
Gigi B. SohnTo be a Commissioner of the Federal Communications CommissionFederal Communications Commission