Gigi Sohn is a well-known Silicon Valley insider and the former head of external affairs at Facebook. She has recently been hired by Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube to become their chief internet safety officer where she will be tasked with developing new tools for parents that protect children on Youtube including content moderation systems.
Gigi Sohn in the year 2019.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Chief Somodevilla
Is it fair to confirm an independent agency candidate who lied to Senators about her business conflicts? Senators should raise the question to Gigi Sohn, the candidate for the Federal Communications Commission.
On media and broadband competition, Ms. Sohn is as progressive as they come. Her role with Locast, an app that intercepted and retransmitted local broadcast signals over the internet without the authorization of broadcasters, is much more concerning. The material was available to watch for free, although contributions were welcomed.
Locast used a copyright loophole to steal material for NGOs. Several broadcasting networks sued, and Locast was ordered to cease operations by a federal court last October. Damages of $32 million were granted to the plaintiffs. During the case, Ms. Sohn was a member of Locast’s three-person board of directors.
During Locast’s Senate confirmation hearing last month, Ms. Sohn supported her. “I believed this was fantastic from a public interest, pro-consumer standpoint,” she said, adding that “there were a lot of low-income persons who also utilized the service.” In other words, she believes that private intellectual property is beneficial to the public.
“Where did the money come from for the payment of the $32 million settlement in connection with the Locast case?” Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker followed up with a written inquiry after the session. She may have to recuse herself from problems affecting the contributor if the money were provided by a firm.
“Settlement money come from sums received to finance [Sports Fan Coalition New York] after SFCNY pays its suppliers,” she said. The charity that ran Locast was known as SFCNY. SFCNY’s IRS 990 form indicated just $794,159 in assets and money at the end of 2020, which was an unexpected response. What happened to the other $31 million?
Ms. Sohn refused to provide a copy of the settlement to the Senate, and now we know why. The deal was reached on Oct. 27—one day after President Biden nominated her, according to Bloomberg Law. Only $700,000 was agreed to by Locast. Ms. Sohn’s signature is on a copy of the settlement that we checked independently. In other words, broadcasters consented to a settlement the day after she was nominated to her influential regulatory post, reducing her nonprofit’s liability by 98 percent. It’s an interesting coincidence.
Why didn’t Ms. Sohn tell Mr. Wicker that the “$32 million settlement” was a lie? Even if the settlement arrangement was perfectly legal, her lack of openness is a concern. Given her upcoming influence over broadcasters, which she must swear to avoid under an FCC ethics agreement, the settlement also gives the appearance of a conflict.
Senator Wicker has asked for a second hearing to look into the matter. However, Democrats are aware that her nomination is becoming less probable as time passes, and Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell is planning a committee vote on Ms. Sohn for next Wednesday.
Ms. Sohn sought to soothe worries about her commercial conflicts on Thursday by pledging to disqualify herself for the first three years of her tenure from retransmission consent and television broadcast copyright problems. These topics eat up a lot of the FCC’s regulatory capacity, which means the agency might be stuck in a rut on a lot of matters, for better or worse.
Dishonesty is not excused by her recusal. How can Senators accept her vow to regulate without prejudice if she lied about the Locast settlement?
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It first appeared in print on January 29, 2022.