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FCC watchdog goes from making waves to making policy

August 11, 2014

I'm an advocate at heart, but I believe in the mission of the agency, says Sohn.
“I’m an advocate at heart, but I believe in the mission of the agency,” says Sohn.

Can Gigi Sohn L’86 keep both the internet and lines of communication with industry open?

By Fredda Sacharow

From the Penn Law Journal Summer 2014 issue.

Once, during her brief and only tenure at a law firm not long after graduation, Gigi Sohn L’86 received a request from a partner to write a 25-page memo addressing whether an airline client could hire only white, blonde flight attendants. 

“This wasn’t exactly the Stone Age,” Sohn says wryly, recalling her frustration at having to revisit legal territory that had already been thoroughly mined. “I thought to myself: ‘Was this really what I wanted to be doing?’ Although law firms serve a very valuable purpose, the work I was doing depressed me — I wanted to do something more with my life, something that would make a difference.”

And thus was born a career in public interest law, one whose guiding principle has been both simple and profound: A robust democracy cannot exist without the free flow of information. 

Last November, just after he became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler tapped Sohn, longtime media-industry watchdog and self-described “communications policy wonk,” to serve as his special counsel for external affairs.

The move marked a sharp departure for a woman who had spent the last quarter-century making noise from outside the establishment. 

As executive director of the public advocacy law firm Media Access Project, Sohn represented citizens’ rights before the FCC and the courts; later, as president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based nonprofit, she grappled with intellectual property law and freedom of choice in the digital marketplace.

“The appointment of Sohn is sure to raise eyebrows in some circles,” the Los Angeles Times observed when Wheeler’s choice was announced. The FCC pick “has been a critic of media consolidation, and her views on copyright protection are often at odds with those of the entertainment industry. She is also an advocate of net neutrality rules that most major cable and telephone broadband providers have fought.”

But those who know her argue that Sohn’s segue from outside agitator to Washington insider had a decidedly organic feel.

“I wasn’t surprised when she went to the FCC,” says Andrew Jay Schwartzman C’68, L ’71, who hired Sohn as a staff attorney for the Media Access Project in 1988 and eventually made her the organization’s executive director, a post she held until 1999.

“It was a logical move for her and a wise move on the part of the incoming chairman,” Schwartzman says. “It was clear to me that Wheeler wanted to have close relations with the public interest community, and would need someone from that community in his palace guard. Gigi was an obvious choice.”

That choice wasn’t so always so obvious, Sohn would tell you. Political activism was not hard-wired into her genetic code.

Sure, she remembers as a kid of 5 or 6 sitting with her parents glued to the kitchen radio listening to news of the Vietnam War. But dinnertime conversation ran more to sports than to policy. “We were a news-watching family and a news-listening family for many, many years, but political? Not really,” Sohn says. 

At Baldwin High School in Nassau County, N.Y., she played volleyball, basketball, field hockey and softball. The only female and “by far the best athlete” of four siblings, she’d go on to play rugby at Boston University and later at Penn. But a dormant social conscience began stirring, nurtured by writing assignments at BU’s Daily Free Press and a growing appreciation for media’s impact on the communal landscape.

A summer clerkship and those two years at a private firm convinced Sohn that although lawyers in private practice play a key role in the nation’s judicial system, that wasn’t where she needed to be. 

Working on behalf of the public clearly was.

The job as litigator for the Media Access Project (MAP) was a match made in communications Heaven. Under Schwartzman’s mentorship, Sohn threw herself into the mission of “making the media more democratic in the pre-Internet era,” she says. 

“As long as you have incredibly controlling corporations, you have to have diverse viewpoints,” Sohn says. “This is what we fought for — to promote minority and female access, to oppose efforts to consolidate the media. If you didn’t have policies requiring different viewpoints, you’d only have Fox News, with everything reflecting the viewpoint of the owner.”

Schwartzman, now Benton Senior Counselor at the Georgetown Law School, believes Sohn brought to MAP “an energy and a legal excellence that was widely recognized. She was particularly respected for her work on media ownership and diversifying the employment of people with different backgrounds and ethnicities.”

By the time the project folded in 2012, victim of declining funding, Sohn was long gone, lured away by the Ford Foundation to serve as a project specialist in the foundation’s Media, Arts and Culture unit. But her heart remained rooted in advocacy, and when the opportunity arose to launch the entity that would become the advocacy organization Public Knowledge, she was primed.

In 2001, working with co-founders Laurie Racine and David Bollier and operating out of donated space in a tea shop in Washington, Sohn built the nongovernmental organization from the ground up. Its goals were clearly defined: keeping the Internet open and free — free of control by cable companies such as Comcast and Verizon or by mega Hollywood studios.

Soon the consumer advocate was “going toe-to-toe with multimillion-dollar media outlets.” She was regularly quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and appearing on the Today Show, the McNeil-Lehrer Report and C-SPAN. 

But Sohn couldn’t help wondering if she couldn’t be more effective as part of government, rather than a thorn in its side. To be on the inside making policy, not on the outside making waves. So she was ready when Tom Wheeler came calling last fall. And she knew her strengths would translate well in the new venue.

“I’m a major-league extrovert, I’ve always been a good listener, and I have friends on both sides of the aisle,” she says. “Except for two years in philanthropy, I’d spent most of my career criticizing the FCC. But I had a good relationship with the [commission’s] staff, and they always had a great respect for what Public Knowledge did, often calling on us to come in and explain our point of view.”

Indeed, many of the players she’s slugged it out with over the years have had generous words for their fiery foe.

“My relationship with Gigi embodies what is unique about Washington D.C.,” Kyle McSlarrow, former president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, told the congressional newspaper The Hill in 2010. “You can battle it out with a group of people or person, and yet really develop a friendship.”

Similarly, Kathy Brown, a former senior vice president for Verizon who often found herself on opposite sides of the table from Sohn on issues such as network neutrality, lauded Sohn for her fairness and openness to discussion. “Gigi’s one to pick up the phone and say, ‘I want to discuss this,’” Brown said in the same article.

These days, as overseer of external affairs at the FCC, Sohn deals with any matter touching the public. Her portfolio includes planning Wheeler’s outside events and maintaining relations with Capitol Hill and the White House. E-mails and phone calls bounce back and forth with the public interest technology policy organizations she worked closely with for many years, as well as with representatives of Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union, civil rights and educational groups, and industry insiders — anybody with a stake in communications and the rules that govern it.

“Increasingly, people understand the issues our commission deals with. Part of my job is to allow them to understand why the agency is so important in their lives. One of my most important tasks is demonstrating to third parties that the chairman’s office is a welcoming place to be, and that they will be listened to,” Sohn says. 

A controversial $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable by Comcast — the country’s largest cable and broadband provider — and an agreement between Comcast and the streaming service Netflix are among topics that have consumed Sohn’s days and many of her nights. Much of her work revolves around the concept of net neutrality, subject of a recent federal court ruling that sent the FCC, the telecom industry, public interest groups and the public at large into a frenzy of activity. 

When the Web was in its infancy, laws required service providers to allow all websites equal access to bandwidth, no matter how much data they transmitted. But in 2002, the FCC ruled that these service providers should no longer be classified as telecommunications services but as information services, a distinction that severely limited the ability of government to regulate. In 2010, the FCC adopted rules under this less regulatory framework in an attempt to ensure that the Internet stayed open and fair. 

But just months after Sohn reported for duty in her southwest D.C., office, a federal court ruling stemming from a lawsuit originally brought by Verizon invalidated the 2010 rules, essentially ending the long-standing principle of net neutrality and evoking one of Sohn’s darker visions. 

“Without net neutrality, an Internet service provider could say to Netflix, for example, we’re going to slow down the quality of your service unless you pay us extra,” she explains. “A provider could slow down or speed up content that it didn’t like; it would essentially be making decisions for you.”

Reaction to the suit was swift. Petitions flooded social media sites, urging the FCC to “stop kowtowing to corporate interests and save the open Internet.” A White House blog reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to “a free and open Internet,” while the president himself proclaimed via live video chat that “The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way.” 

For their part, key industry players such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable continued to insist they should be free to manage their affairs as they please, thank you very much, and pledged to maintain an open Internet providing consumers with competitive choices and unfettered access.  

Like a Facebook relationship, obviously, the situation is … complicated. Sohn spent the weeks immediately following the decision explaining the ruling’s legal nuances to lay people, while her agency scrambled to provide a new framework palatable to all.

When a new set of FCC proposals in late April stoked widespread panic in the media that net neutrality might soon become a thing of the past, Sohn found herself facing pushback from former colleagues outside the FCC — a situation that left her feeling not so much uncomfortable as introspective.

“I’m an advocate at heart, but I believe in the mission of the agency,” she says. “That means I’ve had to switch gears and be a team player, and work toward making policy from the inside. It means I don’t necessarily get my way. It’s been an interesting test for me.”

With its relentless demands, her job is no 9-to-5 undertaking; the very notion makes Sohn laugh. Still, she’s committed to carving out family time at the end of an exhausting day, returning to the urban home she shares with her wife, Lara Ann Ballard, an Army veteran and an attorney with the U.S. State Department, and their 9-year-old daughter Yosselin.

The spouses share a passion for cooking — “I make a mean waffle!” Sohn proclaims — and their house rings with music. Recently, Sohn started taking singing lessons as a counterpoint to the hours parsing the most intricate of regulations, rulings and proposed media mergers.

Meanwhile, a sense of urgency underlies her days at the FCC: Sohn’s boss serves at the pleasure of the president, and a new election looms. Three years, then, to get everything on her agenda done.

What’s ahead for her after that? 

“I’m really not thinking about it right now,” Sohn says. “I just started this job 6 months ago, and I plan to be at the FCC until the end of the chairman’s tenure.The only thing I know for sure is that I’ll still be working on behalf of the public.” 

– Fredda Sacharow is a former editorial page editor and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, NJBiz, the Jewish Exponent and various publications of Rutgers and Columbia universities.