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Net Neutrality is at Risk.  Confirming Gigi Sohn to FCC Can Break Stalemate and Bring About Protections

DIGITAL DIVIDED - In the closing days of 2022, Californians watched as an arctic blast along with snow and freezing rain beset much of the nation. Our customary gentle winter weather is not a gift we can give the rest of America. But what about one of our foremost consumer laws? The safeguard from corporate price-gouging and selective slowdown or cutoff of Internet and broadband content, a protection known as Net Neutrality, definitely tops the list. 

Net Neutrality is common sense but is not federal law. President Joe Biden tried to change that in 2021 with his appointment of attorney and consumer-privacy champion Gigi Sohn to break what has become a 2-2 partisan stalemate on the five-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Sohn, who is openly lesbian and a longtime leader in efforts to reflect Americans’ diversity in access to the media, served in the FCC under President Obama. In 2015, she helped usher Net Neutrality standards into law, before Donald Trump and his FCC appointees rescinded those protections in 2017. Over the past two years, resistance to Sohn’s nomination, led by some Republicans, stalled her confirmation vote in the 50-50 Senate. The Senate recess this month was a final roadblock in her path—for this Congress.  

Now I am leading the call, on behalf of my Democratic club, East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), and by digital freedom and consumer activists nationwide, for President Biden to renominate Gigi Sohn as soon as the new Senate convenes in January. Given the victory last month for the U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania by John Fetterman, Democrats will gain a majority on all Senate committees and a clear majority in the chamber. This new working majority could, and should, be used with all deliberate haste to encourage Gigi Sohn’s renomination and to confirm her to the FCC. There she could bring forward and approve for all Americans the Net Neutrality protections that Californians already enjoy.  

I know about our landmark state law because I was a leader in winning its passage, as SB 822, in 2018 and its signing by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. It was a tough and strenuous fight. We had to stop an attempt by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago to gut the bill in June 2018, at the behest of his corporate campaign donors. We had to educate lawmakers about the ugly consequences of “throttling,” or restricting, wireless content and even phone calls from firefighters and first responders by large Internet providers. In the end, we enacted the strongest state law protecting Internet and broadband consumers, including phone customers reliant on broadband for their mobile coverage, from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing because of payment the content of any source. To this day, this issue has profound personal impact for me. 

In March 2020, I was closing in on earning my associate in arts (AA) degree in political science at East L.A. College, after not being in school for more than 20 years. It was painfully challenging as a U.S. Army veteran with disabilities to return to school alone. That month, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, adding to the hurdles, since all classes and counseling suddenly shifted to Zoom. There was no other way to attend school. Students in the tens of thousands were in the same situation I was in.  

Then I got full-blown COVID, before vaccinations were available. I did not go outside for almost five months and still had to study to get my college degree. Had it not been for reliable Internet service, I would not have been able to graduate with honors—or made it to the college’s President’s List in June 2022, when I finally graduated from college. I am eternally grateful I did not have to deal with schemes by my campus or Internet providers to shake me down for download fees or online subscription costs just to complete my course work. There ought to be a law against such practices everywhere. In California, there is.  

Net Neutrality extends a lifeline, not just good telecommunications policy. Considering the present condition of the FCC, with a 2-2 partisan split, we must have someone as the fifth commissioner who will break the gridlock and tilt the balance toward the average citizen. We need that nominee to truly represent ALL AMERICANS, regardless of background, and to take to heart our best interests within the scope of the FCC’s responsibilities.  

We also need that special someone on the FCC to be impartial in every decision, not swayed by or deferential to the biggest and richest corporations, with good judgement on tough decisions. We want that someone to act in a transparent, decisive manner, time after time. That is Gigi Sohn.  

Almost one year ago, in January 2022, our California Net Neutrality law survived another challenge in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by foes in Big Telecom. It is time they stopped their unpopular, anti-consumer crusade to allow selective delivery or denial of content to ordinary Americans who use the Internet and wireless devices. How sad they fight so hard for the power to choke data that consumers seek and need.  

I am convinced that Gigi Sohn is not only the right person for the job as FCC commissioner, but also that she is the best person. The U.S. Senate must put aside party interests, and work for the citizens of this country, who by the way, pay their quite handsome salaries. We need Gigi Sohn re-appointed by President Biden to the FCC and for the new Senate to confirm her. Each of us have a stake in her chance to serve the public as commissioner and bring to all Americans the protection for Net Neutrality that Californians like me count on as essential. 

(Rafael Chagoya is an Army veteran of the Iraq War era and graduate of East L.A. College who lives in the Eastside L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights. He is chair of the Veterans Committee of East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD).)