May 22, 2024

Commencement Speaker and Net Neutrality Champion Gigi Sohn Speaks on the Importance of Tech Advocacy

Gigi Sohn, renowned laywer and open internet advocate, gave the following address to the School of Information graduating class on May 18, 2024:

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Hearst, for that lovely introduction and for being such a great friend and wonderful host to me and my family.  I also want to thank you for finding an extra short gown and a box for me to stand on! 

Congratulations graduates!  It’s a great honor to be speaking before you and your families today. While I didn’t attend Berkeley, I’ve spent a great deal of time here over the past two decades, and there are so many people at Cal who have been friends and mentors that I feel like I should earn an honorary residence, or better still, a parking permit!  

In October of 2021, I was nominated by the President of the United States for a very important role — to be a Commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which regulates communications networks of all kinds, from broadcast to cable to broadband. This job is at the top of my profession, and my nomination was historic — I was the first openly LGBTQ individual selected to serve on the FCC. So probably you are thinking now: oh, that’s why Gigi Sohn has been asked to speak to you today.  Ah, but I said I was nominated, not that I was confirmed. In short, politics happened.

While fighting for what you believe in can be exhausting — and sometimes can cost you friends — it can also be exhilarating.

I’m speaking to you today because regardless of what happened during the 16 long and difficult months of my Senate confirmation process, I wouldn’t have changed a thing that I did before or during it. And despite the fact that I wasn’t confirmed, I continue to do the important work of ensuring that our communications policies promote a healthy democracy and a just society. You see, I didn’t become a public interest advocate so I could be in power. I became a public interest advocate so I could speak truth to power and make change. 

I’d like to share with you some of the twists and turns of my professional journey as a public advocate in the world of communications and technology policy. You are all graduating into careers in the technology field. During your careers, you too will probably have unpredictable twists and turns, have big successes and difficult setbacks, and have to make choices about what to do next. I’m hoping that by sharing my story,  you will be inspired to keep choosing the path that you know is right for you and for society, even if it sometimes comes at a cost.  

So here is my story.  

In 1988, after two unhappy years at a law firm practicing aviation law, I decided to pursue a job in my chosen field — communications law. I was lucky enough to get a job with a tiny public interest law firm called the Media Access Project, where I worked to make broadcasters and cable operators more responsive to the communities that they served. We fought for more minority ownership of, and employment in, media, and supported limits on media consolidation. Trying to accomplish those goals during the politics of the 1990’s was a nearly impossible task, but through that work I learned the importance of media to a healthy democracy. Those with access to those networks influenced the debates that shaped public policy and decided elections. Those without were simply powerless.

The Internet promised to change all of that. Rather than a top-down, command and control medium dominated by a handful of huge corporations, the Internet puts the power of communications at the ends — where you and I are in control. The world that advocates like me envisioned was one where everyone would have a voice, and where the marketplace of ideas, and ultimately democracy, would flourish.

But that ideal wouldn’t happen by itself. Thanks to years of deregulation under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the networks that carried the content, services and applications that make up the Internet became consolidated and closed. By the early 2000s, as the world went from dial-up Internet access to high-speed broadband, there was a growing concern that those networks would start to favor certain Internet traffic, particularly if companies were willing to pay for faster speeds and better service. Communications policy advocates, and tech, entertainment and other companies whose content rode over the Internet urged the FCC and Congress to adopt a policy we called “open access” at the time. Thanks to Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, the policy was renamed “network neutrality,” or “net neutrality” for short.

Put most simply, net neutrality is the principle that every party using the internet gets equal treatment from service providers. 

The fight over net neutrality, and the even more important question of the FCC’s role in overseeing the broadband industry would change the course of my career. After two years building a program at the Ford Foundation that would fund telecommunications, media and technology policy advocacy, I returned to the field to start and run a nonprofit organization called Public Knowledge. Along with working to return balance to copyright, trademark and patent law, getting the FCC to adopt net neutrality rules and exercise oversight over broadband was our biggest issue.

I became one of the top, if not the top advocate in the nation for net neutrality. I testified before Congressional committees numerous times, advocated before the FCC,  the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Justice, appeared in the press and on TV and radio more times than I can count, and discussed and debated the issue at conferences all over the country. I also started blogging and using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Those forums were not only places to get our message across to a wider audience, it led to discussions that sometimes enlightened and sometimes turned nasty and personal. But as I have done my entire career, I also continued to talk to industry and to both political parties, trying to find a way forward together. Unfortunately, given the stakes, compromise proved to be elusive.

While fighting for what you believe in can be exhausting — and sometimes can cost you friends — it can also be exhilarating. In 2013, I got the opportunity to reverse the course of net neutrality when then Chairman of the FCC Tom Wheeler asked me to be one of his senior staffers. 

It was bold of the Chairman of the FCC to hire a former activist as a senior advisor. In my new job, I had to walk the line between my former role as an outside advocate and being a staffer whose job was to serve my boss. But in this role, I was willing to counsel my boss differently than his other advisers, and I told him unequivocally that I thought the only way a court would uphold net neutrality rules was if they were grounded in the strongest legal authority. Despite the fact that the Chairman initially resisted, I advocated for that authority consistently for over a year.

On February 26, 2015, on a snowy day in Washington, DC, the Wheeler-led FCC adopted the strongest net neutrality rules grounded in the firmest legal authority. It was the best day of my career.  

In 2016, the political winds shifted, net neutrality became endangered, and I left government and again became a public advocate. Returning to civil society was an adjustment. I came out of the FCC with an appreciation for the agency, its processes, and its people that I didn’t have before. By law, I had to balance the equities of the many agency stakeholders, including the industries with whom I often disagreed as an advocate. Many advocates in civil society and private practice that lack government experience don’t share those sensitivities, and that can sometimes be frustrating. If you have an opportunity to work for the government, take it and savor it. It will make you a better advocate, a better academic and even a better person.

I loved working for the FCC. After leaving, I thought, for the first time, about whether I might be able to return as a Commissioner. Although I realized it might hurt my chances to achieve this dream, I continued to be a fervent advocate for net neutrality, competition and universal and affordable broadband access, as well as a vocal critic of those who opposed these goals, be they industry representatives, FCC Commissioners, the administration or members of Congress. I continued to testify, appear in the media, and publish articles on a variety of topics, including the growing power of online platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon. I joined the Board of Directors of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is the nation’s premiere digital rights organization, based in San Francisco. I also joined the Board of a nonprofit called Locast, which streamed broadcast signals to viewers who couldn’t receive them over the air. Both organizations engendered different controversies, but I believed in their missions, and still do. 

If you have an opportunity to work for the government, take it and savor it. It will make you a better advocate, a better academic and even a better person.

I also continued a role I’ve had for years – trying to bring more money into the field of communications policy advocacy. Despite the importance of networks to full participation in our society, our economy, our health care and education systems and our democracy, the philanthropic world, with a handful of exceptions, has never funded the field with enough resources to do battle with powerful media and telecommunications companies and their well-funded surrogates. 

All of that work — the net neutrality activism, the use of social media both for advocacy and to express my personal opinions, my Board memberships, my support of other public interest organizations, and by the way, my work on copyright reform well over a decade ago — gave the opponents of my nomination enough ammunition to craft a caricature of me that had no grounding in reality, but proved persuasive. Some of my friends advised me to apologize for my advocacy, including one who suggested that I step down from the EFF Board. I politely declined, because ascending to the FCC was far less important to me than maintaining my integrity and continuing to embrace the importance of the work I’d been doing for nearly 35 years: advocating for policies that ensure that everyone, no matter who they are, where they live or how much money they make, is connected to affordable and open networks, including the most important network of our lifetimes, the Internet.

The good news is that I’m still doing it, still loving it, and still making a difference!

Graduates, you are at an inflection point in your careers. After years of hard work, you are graduating with world-class expertise in technology and data, and how they can be used to make the world a better place. I hope my story both inspires you and helps you in the future when you find yourself weighing difficult choices.    

Congratulations to you all!

Last updated:

May 22, 2024