This week marks five years since fidget spinner enthusiast Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney and current private equity shill, repealed Obama-era net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In case you need a refresher, net neutrality (a term coined by former Biden competition czar Tim Wu) refers to the idea that internet service providers like Comcast or AT&T should treat all internet traffic equally rather than provide preferential treatment for certain websites (either by throttling service speed or creating “fast lanes”). The now-defunct Obama-era net neutrality rules classified broadband internet as a telecommunications service, allowing the FCC to regulate ISPs like public utilities under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The fight to restore these protections has been a long and arduous one. Though President Biden called on the FCC to restore net neutrality in his first year in office, the commission has been deadlocked between 2 pro-net neutrality Democrats and 2 anti-net neutrality Republicans since the start of his term, with a vacant fifth commissioner seat stalling most agency priorities. In October 2021, Biden nominated consumer advocate Gigi Sohn – an architect of the Obama-era net neutrality rules – to fill the FCC’s vacant fifth seat. Sohn spent the next 17 months in confirmation hell, the victim of a ruthless and homophobic smear campaign (read my colleague Dylan Gyuach-Lewis’ rebuttal of these dishonest smears). These fallacious attacks on Sohn’s record were bankrolled by the telecom industry, which spared no expense on campaign donations and revolving-door flacks to sink Sohn’s nomination. Sohn withdrew her nomination earlier this year, after Joe Manchin announced he would vote with all Republicans (and at least one other Democrat) against Sohn. Throughout Sohn’s doomed confirmation fight, she received little to no public backup from Senate Democratic leadership or the Biden administration.
Two months after Sohn’s withdrawal, Biden has now found a replacement nominee for the crucial fifth commissioner slot: State Department Senior Advisor Anna Gomez. Gomez previously served in the Obama administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) from 2009 to 2013, overseeing the national transition from analog to digital broadcast television. She also has extensive experience at the FCC itself, having worked in various legal advisory and leadership roles at the agency from 1994 to 2006.
But it is Gomez’s record outside of government that raises red flags about her nomination to the FCC and commitment to restoring net neutrality. From 2006 to 2009, Gomez was a top government affairs executive (read: unregistered lobbyist) for telecom firm Sprint Nextel, which engaged in service speed throttling prior to the Obama-era Title II regulations. Gomez’s work for Sprint raised eyebrows upon her appointment to the NTIA in 2009, as the particulars of her work allowed her to avoid disqualification under Obama’s ban on hiring lobbyists. After leaving the Obama administration in 2013, Gomez worked for a decade as a partner at Wiley Rein, a corporate law firm that has lobbied federal agencies (including the FCC) on behalf of clients like AT&T, Comcast, Nexstar, Verizon and telecom industry trade association CTIA. Though Gomez has yet to disclose her Wiley Rein clients, many of the aforementioned telecom firms that retained Wiley Rein have praised her nomination to the FCC, as have some anti-Sohn civil rights groups with financial ties to the industry. As tech journalist Karl Bode recently noted, the industry’s love for Gomez draws attention to a key difference between her and Sohn: in her three decades working in telecommunications policy, Gomez has never once publicly expressed her views on net neutrality or Title II regulations.
Gomez’s supporters, including some consumer advocates, claim that concerns over her revolving-door record are overblown. To play devil’s advocate, there may be some merit to these claims: her work at Sprint was largely focused on challenging the stranglehold of dominant firms like AT&T and Verizon, and Gomez later recused herself from overseeing NTIA matters that involved her former employer. The American Prospect’s David Dayen has noted that Gomez is seen by some progressives as a better “consensus option” for the job than other industry-allied contenders, and that her vagueness on net neutrality could help avoid another industry-backed opposition campaign. Recent history also offers signs for hope, as the Obama-era net neutrality rules were authored by the last person you’d expect: former telecom lobbyist-turned-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
But all of this could very well be wishful thinking, as there’s no guarantee that Gomez will be another Wheeler (whose surprise conversion to net neutrality champion came after John Oliver and tens of thousands of free internet advocates made the issue front-page news). The Senate Commerce Committee, which holds confirmation hearings for FCC nominees, must do its job and get answers from Gomez on the single most important issue governing the future of the internet. Save for industry ally and ex-Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, every single member of the Committee’s Democratic majority has previously expressed support for net neutrality. Surely at least one must be willing to grill Gomez on the topic? Perhaps outspoken net neutrality advocates Ed Markey or Brian Schatz? Rising party star Raphael Warnock? Or Class I Senators Tammy Baldwin, Jon Tester, and Jacky Rosen – all of whom could use net neutrality as a winning political issue for their reelection campaigns next year?
The fear of industry retaliation should not keep Senate Democrats from getting answers on net neutrality from Gomez. If Big Telecom wants to unfairly smear another Biden FCC nominee for supporting a free and open internet, the White House and Senate Democrats should rectify their past cowardice and use their bully pulpit to fight back against the smears. Conversely, if Gomez reveals herself to be unwilling to restore Title II regulations, the White House should withdraw her nomination or risk explaining to voters next year why a Biden-majority FCC couldn’t restore Obama-era net neutrality protections.
We can still live in a world where Ajit Pai is best known for embarrassing himself on the internet, rather than permanently destroying it. But Senate Democrats must first ask the right questions.