Lobbyists and lawmakers have been buzzing for months over the delay in Biden’s decision over the commission, which has been deadlocked 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats since he came into office.
Rosenworcel, who has been acting chair, will be the first woman to become permanent chair of the 87-year-old commission. Biden also nominated her for an additional term.
Sohn, a longtime public interest advocate who served as counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who served during Barack Obama’s second term, had been viewed as one of the contenders for a slot on the commission. If Rosenworcel is confirmed to a new term and Sohn to fill the vacancy, Democrats will hold a 3-2 majority on the FCC, allowing them to tackle priorities like restoring net neutrality rules.
Rosenworcel was first confirmed to the commission in 2012, and served until early 2017. She was confirmed to a new term in August of that year.
In a statement, she said that she was “deeply humbled” by the appointment. “It is an honor to work with my colleagues on the commission and the agency’s talented staff to ensure that no matter who you are or where you live, everyone has the connections to live, work and learn in the digital age,” she said.
The commission’s three other members are Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, and Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington, both Republicans. The vacancy was created earlier this year when Ajit Pai, who served as commissioner during Donald Trump’s administration, stepped down, as is tradition when there is a change in the White House.
Biden also nominated Alan Davidson, senior adviser at the Mozilla Foundation, as assistant secretary for Communications and Information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The selections drew praise from public interest group Free Press, which has advocated for net neutrality and against media and telecom consolidation. Its CEO, Craig Aaron, said in a statement that it was “a dream team for anyone who cares about the future of the internet and the media.”
Sohn most recently has been a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. Before working at the FCC, she co-founded and served as CEO of Public Knowledge, the public interest group. If confirmed, she will be the first openly LGBTIQ+ commissioner in the history of the commission.
Sohn wrote on Twitter, “I’m so deeply honored by @potus to serve as @FCC Commissioner. If confirmed, I’ll work to fulfill his goal of ensuring that every household in the U.S. has robust broadband internet. Congratulations to @jrosenworcel on her ascension to Chair — well deserved!”
As the FCC has had a partisan split this year, Rosenworcel has largely pursued non-controversial policies in areas like robocalls and broadband connectivity. She had sought the position as permanent chair, with more than two dozen senators lobbying the president to designate her as permanent chair.
There also had been concern that the delay in naming nominees to the FCC risked Republicans gaining a majority, as Rosenworcel would have been forced to leave the commission at the end of the year because her term has lapsed. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement that they would be “swiftly considering these nominations before the end of the year.”
There also had been speculation that the White House was also looking at other potential nominees for chair, including Sohn and Catherine Sandoval, a former member of the California Public Utilities Commission.
Rosenworcel was on the FCC in 2015 when the commission passed a robust set of net neutrality rules, which required internet providers like Comcast and AT&T to treat traffic equally. But when those rules were largely rolled back by the Republican-dominated FCC in late 2017, along with a classification of ISPs as common carriers, she was vigorous in her opposition. She also opposed FCC moves that eased media ownership rules, and was a persistent critic of Sinclair Broadcast Group as the agency sanctioned the broadcaster in 2020. She called the $48 million fine insufficient. The broadcaster had faced investigations over the way it handled its proposed merger with Tribune Media, as well as other probes of the way it handled retransmission consent negotiations and sponsor disclosure. She also went public with her criticisms of Trump for his attacks on the media, and chided Republican commissioners for not speaking out. “History will not be kind to silence,” she said.
A 3-2 majority would likely mean that the Democratic-dominated commission will take a harder line against mergers and consolidation, but Rosenworcel has at times diverged from measures favored by her colleagues.
In 2016, she balked at a proposal favored by Wheeler and another Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, who was then on the FCC, to enable consumers to access their cable subscriptions not through a set-top box, but through apps. It was promoted as a way to free consumers from having to shell out monthly fees to rent their cable box, as it would have required pay TV providers to provide programming apps that were compatible across platforms. But Rosenworcel at the time said she had concerns over technical and legal issues, and the proposal was then sidelined.
Before her tenure on the FCC, Rosenworcel was senior communications counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee, then chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and, before that, by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI). Her husband, Mark Bailen, is an attorney at BakerHostetler who specializes in the First Amendment and copyright. Given the potential for a conflict, he will be taking a leave of absence from the firm, the FCC said.
Biden also announced another nominee, Kathi Vidal, to serve as the under secretary of commerce for intellectual property at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The selection drew praise from Motion Picture Association Chairman Charles Rivkin, as the trade association pushes for measures to combat piracy.
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