Janine Jackson interviewed Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer, on the nomination of Gigi Sohn to the FCC.
This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Gigi Sohn was nominated by Joe Biden to fill the vacant fifth seat at the Federal Communications Commission in October of 2021, and renominated for a third time last month. Sohn is a veteran legal telecom expert, a fellow at Georgetown Law, co-founder of the group Public Knowledge, and for years an advisor to former FCC chair Tom Wheeler.
Therein lies the tale—a disheartening one of outsized corporate power and the denaturing of government’s public interest obligation, and of transparently scurrilous right-wing attacks, and lagging, inadequate response.
And back of it all, the critical fight for a media universe that lives up to the promise to be open, diverse, creative and liberatory, and not yet another sphere of corporate power and might makes right.
Here to bring us up to date on the attacks on Gigi Sohn’s FCC nomination, and why it matters is, Evan Greer. She’s director of Fight for the Future, and she joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Evan Greer.
Evan Greer: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
JJ: I want to talk about the nature of the latest round of attacks on Gigi Sohn that you call out in your **Fast Company** piece with Yvette Scorse, from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. But before we got to Fox and Breitbart and “she-male” and “sex trafficking,” it seems like there was another plan to say that Sohn was just too left, and would censor conservative voices, and hated rural people, and that was what made her unqualified, right? This is almost like a plan B, if you will.
EG: Yeah, for sure. And to really understand both what’s going on in this situation, and just the utter hypocrisy behind it, you have to go back even a little further to remembering why the Federal Communications Commission is important, and what the recent history there is.
Some of your listeners probably remember that, as you mentioned, during the Obama administration, millions of people from across the political spectrum spoke out and fought really hard for the enactment of strong oversight of the telecom industry.
And that fight was mostly talked about as the net neutrality fight, and it certainly did have to do with those net neutrality rules, although it also had to do with, again, the broader battle around the FCC’s ability to protect the public interest from what are effectively natural monopolies in these giant telecom companies, like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc.
And during the Trump administration, Ajit Pai, the chair that Trump nominated, swept through the Senate very, very quickly, and within months had already begun the process of repealing those rules.
We are now two years into the Biden administration, and Biden does not even have a fully functional FCC.
So those delays—we’re going to talk in a moment about the smears that Gigi Sohn has faced, but I think it’s important that we first just talk about the impact of that, which is that this agency, that plays an essential role in protecting the public interest and protecting us from being, frankly, scammed and screwed over by these large and incredibly powerful monopolies, has been totally unable to do their job, because of the dark money–funded smear campaign that has slowed down Gigi Sohn’s nomination.
And I think it’s important to understand that, because folks like Ajit Pai, who is a former top lawyer for Verizon, and had tremendous conflicts of interest for the job, again, were approved very, very quickly by the Senate, because, historically, confirmation processes for these types of roles have been largely pro forma, just sort of a, yeah, sure, we’ll approve your guy, you approve our guy, and all is well and good.
And this has been the exception to that, where Gigi Sohn has faced relentless smear campaigns, some of which we know is funded directly by the telecom industry, because it’s coming from groups that they’ve effectively used as their mouthpieces in the past, folks like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and others, that have taken large amounts of money from the industry, and routinely put out statements more or less in line with their policies.
And so they started a lot of the attacks on Sohn, calling her left wing, playing into these tropes around claims of anti-conservative bias, saying that she supports censorship.
All of that’s completely ridiculous. Sohn, like myself, is a staunch defender of the First Amendment, and has actually been very outspoken about the need for protecting speech from across the political spectrum. It’s actually rare these days in DC to have someone that does stand up for the free speech rights, even of their political opponents. And Gigi is really one of those people who has a strong dedication to free speech and free expression.
But the folks that are laundering these attacks don’t really care about their veracity. The goal is just to create confusion, and they’ve been very successful in creating a lot of flack that has now been picked up by the right-wing media, who are emboldened by these telecom-funded attacks, and they’ve really taken that and run with it. And they’ve now run off the deep end, and we can talk about that a bit more in a minute.
JJ: Thank you very much for pointing to the complicated nature of it, because, yeah, it’s very hard to push a line that Gigi Sohn would censor conservative voices when you have public support for her from the likes of Chris Ruddy, the head of Newsmax, and Preston Padden, the former Fox and ABC executive, who are coming forward, saying she’s never said anything that indicated to me that she would censor conservative voices.
And then the anti-rural thing was just a textbook thing where you circulate a video that you deceptively edited, and folks just run with it.
But now we see a certain kind of machine has been activated. You know, copycat headlines. The Daily Mail, for Pete’s sake, is involved. So let’s talk about, then, what you call going off the rails, the nature of this current attack, and, just because it’s what listeners may have seen, what the heck does Gigi Sohn have to do with sex trafficking?
EG: Absolutely nothing. But again, that doesn’t deter these outlets that tend to play pretty fast and loose with the facts. But let me explain what these attacks are, and what the argument that they’re trying to make is, and then I’ll very quickly explain why that’s a load of bleep, if you will.
So as you mentioned, in the last week and a half, we saw a bunch of far-right-wing news outlets publish more or less identical articles claiming that Gigi Sohn, this nominee, has opposed efforts to combat sex trafficking. That’s the argument that they’re making.
Now, even these outlets that, again, don’t particularly care about the facts, have a fair amount of trouble backing up that claim, because, again, it’s utterly nonsensical. But what they’re basically saying is, they’re attacking Gigi, who was sitting on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the EFF, which is an organization probably many of your listeners know about, maybe even have donated to. They’re like an ACLU for the internet. They have been staunch defenders of free speech, and opponents of government censorship and surveillance, unapologetically, for many years.
And EFF is one of dozens of human rights organizations from around the world that oppose a piece of legislation called SESTA-FOSTA. This was legislation that created a carve out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act around content online that could theoretically be related to sex trafficking. The bill was so poorly written that, again, it was opposed by the entire human rights community, and, in fact, the US Department of Justice came right out and said, a couple years later, that the law has been utterly ineffective in aiding them in actual prosecutions of real sex trafficking and other related crimes. It’s actually made it harder for them to do so.
So EFF and many organizations oppose this law, not because they oppose efforts to combat sex trafficking, but because they opposed a terrible law that actually made it harder to combat sex trafficking, while in the process opening the floodgates for widespread online censorship of a wide range of content that had absolutely nothing to do with sex trafficking, like LGBTQ content, content related to sexual health, content related to learning about consent, and positive models for healthy and consensual adult relationships.
This is the type of stuff that got scrubbed off the internet by a ham-fisted law that, again, was opposed by many organizations, not just the EFF.
But these headlines gloss over all of that, and just wave their hands and try to say, Gigi Sohn, SESTA-FOSTA, sex trafficking.
But here’s the thing, is that none of this actually matters at all to Gigi’s candidacy for a role at the FCC, because even if she had taken a position on SESTA-FOSTA, which she never has, and even if, somehow, her role on the board of a highly respected organization like EFF implicated her in every single one of EFF’s positions on many, many issues, the FCC has absolutely no jurisdiction in this area whatsoever. They have nothing to do with the online content moderation rules of platforms like Facebook or Instagram or YouTube.
The FCC is laser-focused on providing oversight of telecom companies, the companies that connect us to the internet, your phone company, your cable company. And so this is just completely smoke and mirrors. This is an issue that the FCC doesn’t even touch, and it’d be like complaining that you don’t like Gigi’s position on climate change, another area that the FCC has no jurisdiction over.
So it’s a completely non-substantive attack. It’s very much driven by these homophobic tropes that we’ve seen going more and more mainstream, among both Republican lawmakers and the right-wing media ecosystem, that’s about conflating queerness with predatory behavior, and conflating queerness with deviance and harm.
And so that’s really what this is all about. These attacks are thinly veiled homophobia, because Gigi Sohn is not just a highly qualified nominee for the FCC, she’s also the first openly gay nominee for the position.
And so that’s really what this comes down to, is folks are weaponizing homophobia to try to derail what is a highly qualified nominee for an agency that needs to be fully staffed in order to advance the important priorities that the Biden administration has laid out, around ensuring that everyone has access to affordable broadband, around restoring net neutrality and broadband privacy rules, and updating the maps.
This whole smear around rural folks is ridiculous, because Gigi has actually an impeccable track record on working across the aisle to expand broadband access into rural communities. That’s something she’s really passionate about.
Evan Greer: “Senate Democrats, …have been pretty slow to stand up and speak out and condemn these attacks for what they are.”
So, again, when you get into the substance of it, you actually find, as you mentioned, that people from across the political spectrum really support Gigi’s candidacy, but what’s been slowing her down is these dark money smear campaigns, the homophobic smear campaigns, and, to be frank, the silence of Senate Democrats, who have been pretty slow to stand up and speak out and condemn these attacks for what they are, and who have repeatedly delayed the confirmation proceedings at the behest of the disingenuous opposition coming from Republicans and right-wing media outlets.
So Gigi now does have a hearing coming up on Valentine’s Day, so hopefully that’ll be a match made in heaven, and we will put some of this behind us, and we’ll see Senate Democrats stand strong against these attacks. But it has been a harrowing experience to see how an LGBTQ nominee, who’s highly qualified for their position, has been so viciously smeared in this blatantly homophobic way, and that Democrats have not come to her defense as loudly and swiftly as they absolutely should.
JJ: I have to say, I would kind of add elite media to the shamefully silent crowd. Not that they aren’t dutifully recounting the slurs, and even the complaints about the slurs, but large scale, I see a failure to identify astroturf at every occurrence, to say that this group that calls itself “decency” or “accountability,” they won’t let us know whether they’re in fact bankrolled by cable companies and ISPs, and we’re not going to evince a lot of curiosity about that.
I would like to see more from corporate media, and separating out in terms of seeing the homophobia for itself, first of all, as corrosive to any kind of conversation that we’re trying to have, but in this context, also identifying it as the smoke screen that it is.
And I wonder what you would like to see media doing in this instance.
EG: Yeah, I think this is a really valid point, and I think it’s a broader systemic problem with our media ecosystem. And in some ways, this is one of the reasons why, again, it’s so important that we have a fully functional FCC, whose role it is to ensure fairness in internet rules, etc., to allow the fostering of independent media.
But I agree. I think a big part of the problem is a lot of reporting is, to create this “fair and balanced” perception, is very much a “he said, she said” of lobby groups, where they’ll say, Evan Greer of Fight for the Future said this, and so-and-so of such-and-such organization said that.
And maybe sometimes they’ll include, “and that organization is funded by the industry,” but that’s more of a footnote. And that doesn’t necessarily give readers context, right? That just leaves them thinking, OK, well, this group is saying this, and that group is saying that, and of course they all have their various different interests, but I’m left not being sure what’s true.
And I do think that outlets could do a lot more to unpack what is the real context around this, and not just say this group said this and that group said that, but help readers truly understand what the motivations are at play, and, frankly, call out BS when it is as obvious as it often is.
And in this circumstance, I think it is very, very clear, and there could be more incisive reporting on just how blatant the smear campaign has been.
JJ: I find a big picture problem to be a tacit acceptance of the idea that there are just some folks who want regulators who oppose regulation, and that in the interest of fairness, those folks should have their perspective represented in regulatory policy.
This seems like one of the “so big that it’s off the page” presumptions that, of course, for balance, we should have, directing regulatory agencies, people who have said, explicitly or implicitly, that they just oppose regulation of industry, period.
I just find that a weird situation.
EG: It’s an even weirder situation than that, in some ways, because that deregulatory instinct, that has tended to come from the libertarian right, has been replaced in a lot of ways by what is actually, I would argue, an even more concerning turn toward right-wing politicians wanting to use the regulatory state to enact their frightening moral vision on the rest of us, right?
Where we see folks like Ron DeSantis, very happy to use his state government apparatus to criminalize and crack down on venues that host drag shows, or other types of speech that he doesn’t like, or to reform the education system in his vision.
And so, I’m actually someone that is generally pretty skeptical about granting (especially federal) regulatory agencies too much power. But that’s what, again, is so absurd in this situation, when we’re talking about the types of rules that the Federal Communications Commission can and does put into place. They’re not limiting speech. They’re not restricting what you, a person, can do on the internet. They are holding your cable and phone company accountable so that you have freedom.
And I think that’s what’s been so absurd, is the far right has, again, really spread the smear, this idea, that Gigi Sohn and the Biden FCC are going to take over the internet and regulate it, when really what they’re doing, or what they want to do, is preserve the internet as a free and open place, where anyone can run a website and the government can’t shut it down, and nobody can shut it down, and can’t lean on telecom companies to censor content.
So a lot of these politics have just gotten very topsy-turvy, where it’s actually often, at this point, Republicans who are looking to use the regulatory state to bully corporations into doing things that they want them to do, or stop them from doing things they don’t want them to do.
So I think we just shouldn’t take them very seriously when they say, oh, well, we need a light-touch regulation, when these are some of the same folks that are looking to use the coercive power of the state to silence actual speech, to ban books, etc.
I think we, as progressives, need to reclaim our passion and commitment to free expression as a value, and be very clear that, actually, I want a fully functional FCC because I think it’s the FCC’s job to preserve free speech and free expression, and that’s why I’m fighting for this and that’s why I care about it, and not let people that are actually very into censorship go around laundering these bogus claims of anti-conservative bias or censorship from someone like Gigi Sohn, when it just couldn’t be further from the truth.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Evan Greer. She’s director of Fight for the Future. They’re online at FightForTheFuture.org. Evan Greer, thank you so much for taking time for us this week on CountersSpin.
EG: Anytime. Thanks so much for having.