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Net Neutrality: Background and Issues

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As the 109th Congress continues to debate telecommunications reform, a major point of contention is the question of whether action is needed to ensure unfettered access to the Internet. The move to place restrictions on the owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet, to ensure equal access and nondiscriminatory treatment, is referred to as "net neutrality." There is no single accepted definition of "net neutrality." However, most agree that any such definition should include the general principles that owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network; and should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.

Concern over whether it is necessary to take steps to ensure access to the Internet for content, services, and applications providers, as well as consumers, and if so, what these should be, is a major focus in the debate over telecommunications reform. Some policymakers contend that more specific regulatory guidelines may be necessary to protect the marketplace from potential abuses which could threaten the net neutrality concept. Others contend that existing laws and FCC policies are sufficient to deal with potential anti-competitive behavior and that such regulations would have negative effects on the expansion and future development of the Internet. The issue of "net neutrality" is expected to remain in the forefront as the 109th Congress continues its debate over telecommunications reform. For information on legislative activity see CRS Issue Brief IB10045, Broadband Internet Regulation and Access: Background and Issues, by Angele A. Gilroy and Lennard G. Kruger. This report will be updated as events warrant.