President Joe Biden’s nominees for key regulatory agencies are facing stiff Republican opposition and delays in their confirmation process, holding up the president’s tech agenda.
The Biden administration has made it a priority to promote competition in technology markets and strengthen consumer protections, stressing the need to boost antitrust enforcement power and signaling an intent to revive Obama-era net neutrality rules.
In a July executive order, Biden laid out key elements of his tech agenda, instructing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt through rulemaking net neutrality regulations under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The order also instructs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to begin rulemaking on increasing competition in technology markets, surveillance and data collection, and acquisitions by major tech companies.
However, two of Biden’s picks to helm regulatory agencies, FCC nominee Gigi Sohn and FTC nominee Alvaro Bedoya, are facing stiff opposition from Republicans, and so far have yet to earn a confirmation vote from Democrats. As a result, both the FTC and the FCC are evenly divided with two commissioners belonging to each party, stalling the Biden administration’s policy goals.
Republicans have pointed to tweets and comments from both members as evidence of their partisanship, warning that the nominees, particularly Sohn, will abuse their positions to advance a left-wing agenda.
Bedoya’s past work and comments critical of immigration authorities, in which he called the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “out-of-control domestic surveillance,” attracted criticism from Republicans including Sen. Ted Cruz, who castigated the nominee as an “extremist.” The Senate Commerce Committee deadlocked 14-14 on Bedoya’s nomination but advanced it out of committee due to Senate rules.
Republicans lambasted Sohn for previous tweets in which she said that “Fox News has had the most negative impact on our democracy,” calling the network “state-sponsored propaganda,” and demanding a government “hearing” into its broadcasts. The Wall Street Journal editorial board described her as “partisan” and argued her nomination “provides fresh evidence of the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch.”
Sohn also drew criticism from broadcasters over her involvement with Locast, a streaming service that re-transmitted local television broadcasts and was later deemed to be illegal. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) issued a statement in November requesting Sohn submit an amended ethics agreement to Congress and expressed “serious concerns” about Sohn’s involvement with Locast.
The issue vexed several Senate Commerce Democrats, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Jackie Rosen, and Jon Tester, as well as several members requested additional meetings with Sohn to resolve their concerns; Sohn’s committee vote was delayed to allow lawmakers additional time to meet with the nominee.
The nominations of both Bedoya and Sohn expired at the end of the previous legislative session, and were resubmitted to the Senate by Biden on Jan. 4.
The Senate Commerce Committee is considering holding a markup to potentially vote on Sohn and Bedoya during the week of Jan. 24, Politico reported, but the delay in confirming the nominees has prompted rebukes from several left-wing advocacy groups active on tech policy issues, who called on Senate Democrats to speed up the process, chastising them for their inaction.
“Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC)––essential agencies for fulfilling Democrats’ promises––remain essentially kneecapped,” left-wing advocacy group Fight for the Future, which is heavily involved in net neutrality activism, said in a statement Monday. “This is largely because Senate Democrats, and particularly the Senate Commerce Committee, has allowed disingenuous complaints from telecom industry groups, and Republican lawmakers sympathetic to their interests, to result in disastrous delays in advancing essential tech policy goals.”
“There’s no time to waste and so much to get done at the FCC: ensuring the billions being invested in broadband actually reach those who need it most, restoring Net Neutrality and Title II, reckoning with media regulators’ history on race and repairing the damage of the Trump years,” Craig Aaron, co-CEO of left-wing activist organization Free Press Action, said Friday. “And the FTC is poised to take long-overdue action against the deceptive and harmful practices of giant platform companies like Meta and Google.”
However, it’s not certain that lawmakers’ concerns, particularly regarding Sohn, will be resolved.
“As we stated previously and communicated to Senate Commerce Committee members last month, NAB continues to harbor serious concerns with Ms. Sohn’s involvement as one of three directors of the illegal streaming service Locast,” Ann Marie Cumming, senior vice president of Communications at NAB, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “However, we remain confident that these concerns can be resolved with an appropriate recusal.”
Sohn will almost certainly fail to earn any GOP votes, according to two Republican Senate aides, meaning she will need every Democrat to support her nomination if she hopes to be confirmed. So far, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has yet to publicly back the nominee; Sinema’s office did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
Given public comments and previous decisions from Republican FCC and FTC officials, the Biden administration will likely need Democratic majorities in both regulatory agencies to implement its tech policies.
Republican FCC commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington have repeatedly expressed their opposition to implementing Title II net neutrality regulations, with Carr calling the framework “socialism in sheep’s clothing.”
Meanwhile, Republican FTC commissioners have pushed back on the agenda of the agency’s Democrats, particularly Chairwoman Lina Khan. Republican Commissioner Noah Phillips wrote an op-ed arguing that the FTC should not craft data privacy rules and instead let Congress pass privacy legislation, while fellow Republican Commissioner Christine Wilson joined Phillips in dissenting when the FTC voted to refile its antitrust lawsuit against Facebook for its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram.
Biden’s plans to strengthen the FTC through legislation have also hit a stumbling block; the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s flagship spending bill that includes several FTC-related provisions, has stalled in the Senate thanks in large part to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
The bill includes a $500 million appropriation to the FTC to establish and operate a privacy bureau, and grants the commission additional authority to impose civil penalties on firms that commit “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” However, following Manchin’s announcement that he would not vote for the legislation, the bill appears to be all but dead.
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