from the people-against-math dept
We’d already noted how telecom and media giants eager to keep their spoils from the Trump era have been waging a not so subtle smear campaign on Biden FCC Commissioner nomination Gigi Sohn, using loyal GOP lawmakers as marionettes. Sohn is broadly popular across both sides of the aisle, but she’s also a fairly fierce advocate of functional regulatory oversight, transparency, and market competition. So companies like AT&T and News Corporation have been seeding a lot of gibberish in DC and in select press outlets about how she’s a “radical” who wants to “censor conservatives” and hurt puppies.
Last week the Fraternal Order of Police joined the fray with a facts-optional missive opposing Sohn’s nomination, claiming it creates “serious public safety considerations.” Their problem? Sohn supports (gasp!) encryption:
“the FOP and many others in the law enforcement community at large are deeply troubled by the active and enthusiastic leadership role of Ms. Sohn as a board member for Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in their forceful advocacy of end-to-end encryption and â€œuser-only-accessâ€â€”often referred to in the law enforcement world as â€œgoing dark.â€ These new encryption methods for communications are causing Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies to rapidly lose the capability to obtain information necessary to protect the public from crime and violence.”
As Techdirt has long noted, this position is baseless nonsense pushed by fans of hyper surveillance (and the illusion of safety that creates). Encryption is simply math. It’s just another useful tool in a tool chest, used by anybody looking for heightened security and privacy in transactions. The fact this sometimes includes terrible people is not the fault of the encryption itself, yet the folks who engage in mindless opposition to the technology perpetually struggle to understand this. Worse, they fail to understand (or just don’t care) that weakening encryption increases the risk of abuse, decreasing privacy and security for everyone.
Amusingly, FOP’s positioning on this stuff isn’t what you’d call consistent. Whereas the group claims that Sohn simply being on the board of an organization that supports end-to-end encryption (the EFF) is some kind of cardinal sin, the organization itself has fought tooth and nail against the decryption of police radios for transparency’s sake. In other words, useful tools are only sacred when we use them. When others advocate for consistent and meaningful security and encryption integrity, they’re unqualified for public office. Funny how that works.
That said, the encryption stuff is possibly just misdirection from the start.
Telecom lobbyists have a long, detailed history of cozying up to various interest groups and encouraging them to support certain positions, even if they have nothing really to do with the group’s subject matter (or undermine their constituents’ best interests). This sort of “astroturf” work often involves co-opting existing groups (from cattlemen’s associations to civil rights groups), and encouraging them to support a company’s position in exchange for a new event center or other perks. These sort of quid pro quo relationships are rarely put in writing, so it’s easy for groups to deny there’s any direct financial link. But the tactic itself is documentable, and is designed to create the illusion of broad support for bad policy (like say, scuttling the nomination of a largely popular regulatory appointment interested in reining in telecom and media giants).
That’s not to say FOP couldn’t have come up with its terrible argument without prodding (the organization has a long history of terrible arguments). But the fairly hollow letter does come at a time where AT&T and News Corporation are desperately trying to outsource opposition with an eye on delaying or derailing Sohn’s nomination. The real goal is to keep the unpopular favors gleaned during the Trump era (the death of net neutrality, the erosion of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, the dismantling of decades-old media consolidation rules with bipartisan support) and keep the agency mired in 2-2 partisan gridlock for as long as humanly possible. They can’t just come out and admit that’s the game, so they utilize a long line of ethically-malleable proxy organizations wielding flimsy pretexts and baseless arguments.
Again, Sohn can be confirmed by Democratic vote alone, but the longer the appointment is delayed, the less time the Biden FCC has to implement reform companies like AT&T and News Corporation won’t like. And if this phony and farmed opposition gets loud enough to sway some centrist Democrats like Sinema and Manchin, all the better for media and telecom giants terrified of meaningful oversight and actual reform.