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Net neutrality gets a boost from leading Democrat

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman says he has added himself as a co-sponsor to a Net neutrality bill.

Net neutrality supporters got a boost Thursday when Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he had added himself as a co-sponsor to the Net neutrality bill introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The House Energy & Commerce Committee oversees the Federal Communications Commission. Waxman said during a hearing for the subcommittee Thursday that it was time to make sure rules were imposed to keep the Internet open.

"Industry will benefit from clarity, consistency, and predictability with regard to Net neutrality," Waxman said at the hearing. "I think that the time is right to formally establish, through legislation if required, the rules of the road with respect to Net neutrality."

The bill, which was introduced by Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or prioritizing content on the Web.

Advocacy groups that helped elect President Obama last year have been pushing hard for Net neutrality legislation or regulation. And they applauded Waxman's support.

"The addition of Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman as a co-sponsor of H.R. 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, is a major and welcome step in Congressional support of the open Internet," Markham Erickson, executive director, Open Internet Coalition, said in a statement. "On behalf of our 77 members, we thank him for his strong leadership on this issue."

Large broadband providers, such as AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast, have argued against a Net neutrality law. They say they need to be able to manage their networks. Most supporters of Net neutrality agree that service providers should also be able to provide "reasonable network management," but they think safeguards should be in place to make sure service providers don't abuse their power.

Republicans indicated they would likely fight legislation. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said she is "weary of talk of efforts to increase regulation." She said there was no case to do so.

There is no clear definition of the term "Net neutrality." But in general it refers to the concept that Internet users should have unfettered access to content and services. In other words, service providers should not be allowed to either impede or favor access to particular sites or applications.

The debate over Net neutrality began heating up about three years ago, when congressional leaders first started holding hearings on new laws to ensure that Internet service providers couldn't monkey with traffic. The discovery that the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast, had slowed down certain kinds of peer-to-peer traffic on its network fanned the flames and sparked public outrage over such practices.

But the fight to create new laws to protect Net neutrality languished after the FCC, which regulates the communications industry, publicly admonished Comcast for violating its Net neutrality principles. These principles aren't regulation and the FCC is somewhat powerless in imposing any real punishment for violating the rules, but the public slap on the wrist coupled with public outcry was enough to get Comcast to change its practices.

A federal appeals court is reviewing the FCC's citation last year of Comcast.

For many folks in the industry, the FCC's handling of the situation and the public response seemed to be sufficient. And support for passing new laws or regulation that might later have unintended consequences appeared to wane.

The U.S. Congress has already rejected at least five bills that would impose Net neutrality regulations.