Peer-to-Peer file sharing (“P2P”) networks allow users to download files like music, movies and games using a P2P software client that searches for other connected computers. In theory, sharing is good. In practice, however, it’s full of risks.
Companies like Napster, BitTorrent, Kazaa, LimeWire, FrostWire, the now-but-maybe-not-for-long-defunct Megaupload, etc., tie users together so they can share files. Users who install the software have a “public folder” or “shared folder” which is searchable for all other users if a certain setting is turned on – and that setting is often turned on by default.
There are two big problems we see in the legal community: (1) copyright violations; and (2) child pornography violations. Both are big problems, but society takes child porn especially seriously. The penalties for engaging in child porn are severe; accidentally viewing child pornography can carry serious consequences, as can “researching” it as The Who’s guitarist Pete Townsend discovered the hard way.
On the copyright front, the issue is stealing the work of others. Though there are serious criminal penalties for copyright infringement (this article about Kim Dotcom comes to mind), the civil justice system deals with most copyright infringement by means of federal lawsuits. If the infringed copyright is registered, statutory damages can lead to awards of $200,000 or more per infringement – plus attorney fees which themselves can be costly. So, that Talking Heads song you wanted to download for “free” instead of paying $0.99 on iTunes? Think again.
Another problem is that some adult porn production companies have hired investigators to find P2P users who’ve ripped off their copyrighted films. They search for IP addresses (kind of like Internet phone numbers) corresponding to illegally downloaded files, then have their lawyers file federal copyright infringement lawsuits naming “DOE” (unknown) defendants. The pornsters’ lawyers then subpoena names from internet service providers (“ISPs”) to ID people corresponding to target IPs, and then fire off “cease and desist” settlement letter threatening severe consequences (and implying the veiled consequence of public disclosure). Of course, people tend not to want to be named as porn infringement defendants, so they settle – even if it wasn’t them who did the nasty deed but their pimple-faced kid, live-in uncle or, um, wife. Voila! New porn profit center!
The real problem with P2P is this. Say you don’t take my advice and decide instead to search for that awesome Cream tune on some P2P network. I mean, who can resist Clapton with a guitar, right? So you search for “Cream song” on your fav P2P and go off to work, figuring you’ll be surprised by some choice tidbits when you get home. Your P2P software gets busy searching other people’s’ computers for “Cream song” and downloads whatever it finds to your public folder (which is defaulted to share with everyone else, remember?). Well, it just so happens that ol’ Freddy out of Montreal really likes child porn, and named one of his favorite files “Cream song” which has now found its way into your computer. Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent I.V. Gotcha has a database listing known child porn files identified by unique hash values, and notices that file is on on a P2P node computer with a unique IP address. (Sounds like some 4th Amendment issues are raised, eh?) Special Agent Gotcha then issues an administrative subpoena to your ISP who gives up the name of the subscriber (i.e. you) who might not be the offender but is in trouble anyway. Not quite the choice tidbit you were hoping for, huh? So, the next time you feel like ripping off an artist instead of forking over a buck, think twice – it might cost you much more than you expected.
A parting suggestion: password protect your home and business wi-fi networks against unauthorized access to lock out those who would piggy-back on your system to do harm.