Online-Safety Resources for the Home

May 2005 (but frequently updated)

File-sharing realities for families

You may have heard terms like "file-sharing," "music-downloading," peer-to-peer" ("P2P" for short). If you haven't, you must not have an online music fan at your house. If not, the only reason why you might want to keep reading is to find out what all the fuss is about - thousands of recording-industry lawsuits and lots of news about musicians' rights and music piracy.

If there are digital music fans at your house, you might want to read on. There are legal, financial, ethical, PC-security, and sometimes children's-well-being risks involved in using the Internet's file-sharing networks.

First, some parents might want to know exactly what this P2P thing is. For one thing, it's huge: now one of the most common online activities[1], with more than a billion music files downloaded each week. In fact Internet service providers are scrambling to deal with all the file-sharing traffic passing through their servers - it uses more bandwidth than Web traffic, sometimes doubling it.[2] For young people, file-sharing is right up there with instant-messaging and gaming in the Top 5 tech activities. Even back in 2003, half of all 12-to-22-year-olds had done some file-sharing.

The simple reason: music. People of all ages have always loved to share music, and - just as with digital photography - the Internet has made it extremely easy to share tunes with friends, wherever they are.

How does it work?

Each file-sharing service is a little different, but basically...

A would-be file-sharer goes to a P2P Web site and downloads its software onto the family computer. That software turns your computer into a node or part of that P2P service's network, opening it up to fellow file-sharers on it (other people who've downloaded the software).

With older P2P technology like Kazaa's, the software creates a "shared media" folder on your computer, to which s/he downloads tunes and from which other people on the network can select and take songs. In some such software programs, you can disallow sharing so that users at your house can download music but nobody else can find and grab tunes from your computer. In other words, you're downloading but not sharing (for P2P history, see, the site of 18-year-old specialist in "Computing, Psychology and Music Technology" Rob Wright in the UK).

Newer file-sharing technology like BitTorrent doesn't give the file-sharer that option. While you're downloading you're also sharing - but only the song, movie, game, etc. you request. (In BitTorrent's case, you download fragments of songs and other files from many computers all at once, which makes it much faster, thus its phenomenal growth and popularity among sharers of large media files.)

The ultimate effect is an instantly accessible, global music library available to anybody connected to the Net anywhere - another very attractive proposition, but not at all attractive to media companies who stand to lose a great deal because of this giant "public library."

Which brings us to the risks....

Legal risk. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (the umbrella organization for recording industry trade associations worldwide) says in its Web site that "unauthorised copying and dissemination of copyrighted works is theft."[3] Note the pairing of "copying and dissemination." When file-sharers both download and share, they - and, if they're minors, their parents - are at risk of being sued.

An article in the New York Times focusing on legal music adds some clarity: "Downloading music from the Internet is not illegal. Plenty of music available online is not just free but also easily available, legal and - most important - worth hearing. That fact may come as a surprise after highly publicized lawsuits by the Recording Industry Association of America.... But the fine print of those lawsuits makes clear that fans are being sued not for downloading but for unauthorized distribution: leaving music in a shared folder for other peer-to-peer users to take."[4] In other words, there is currently little legal risk for music downloaders who configure their file-sharing software not to allow sharing. A lot of file-sharing software programs make this an option. But this is not always an option, for example with BitTorrent - something all file-sharers need to check out in the preferences or options of the P2P software.

That's the risk question, then there's the purely legal one. All the legal ins and outs - from burning CDs for friends to the difference between listening to and downloading online music - are addressed in a FAQ written by cyberlawyer Parry Aftab of Wired Safety. Childnet International in London provides both UK and US perspectives, as well as "Young People, Music, & the Internet," a Web site and an educational leaflet for parents that is being printed in eight languages and distributed in 19 countries. As for file-sharers themselves, Microsoft's WebSafeCrackers, designed by and for youth, has a whole section on P2P called Nick-star.

Of course there are ethical questions too: e.g., is it ethical for somebody's entire music collection to have been free, with no compensation to the copyright owners? What happens to songwriters and bands when this part of their income is taken away? A New York Times article, "No Fears: Laptop D.J.'s Have a Feast," points to many spots on the Web where music is free and legal, artists get compensated, and where the sound quality of the music is even reliable. And of course there are some great pay-per-tune sites - lists hundreds of online music retailers by region of the world and other music destinations on the Web.

Porn in P2P. The file-sharing services allow for sharing photos and videos, as well as music, software, games, and text documents. Some of those images and videos are pornographic. Studies have shown that porn is being widely shared on the P2P networks, even more than music on some.[5] [WinMX, for example, is "full of porn," an experienced file-sharer told me, "but by default it only searches for music so you don't get porn unless you're looking for it."] Children can download porn by mistake because in some cases the descriptive labels that identify these files aren't accurate. And standard filtering software rarely blocks porn on P2P networks. Filters are generally designed to detect and block URLs, or Web addresses, and keywords on Web pages, not P2P file descriptors, especially if they merely use a celebrity's name. Even files named with characters such as Winnie the Pooh or Pokemon have been found to be pornographic. Kazaa, however, has a "Family Filter" (described in its Parents' Guide) that you can configure to block images and videos altogether.

Family Privacy. This is a less well-known but well-documented risk, and parents need to know about it so they can protect what's on the family computer. File-sharers are inadvertently making a lot more than music available to the millions of people on the P2P networks. Emails, medical records, and family financial information have been shared during file-sharing. The services themselves don't do a good job of telling users that they have to be careful about what folders on their hard drive they open up to the file-sharing public. A 2002 study of Kazaa at HP Labs in California found "the majority of the users in our study were unable to tell what files they were sharing, and sometimes incorrectly assumed they were not sharing any files when in fact they were sharing all files on their hard drive."[6] Congress later held hearings on this problem to get the word out.[7] Recent testimony in a FTC workshop on P2P[8] indicated that Kazaa "had significantly improved" in this area, and "other software, such as eDonkey, did a good job of clearly indicating to users exactly which files are being shared." BitTorrent represents "virtually no risk" where inadvertent file-sharing's concerned.

Spyware. The biggest pest plaguing the P2P networks is spyware - little software programs that are downloaded with music and other files or "bundled" with the file-sharing software some of these services provide. The least threatening sort slows your family PC down by loading it up with little Web-tracking programs that follow your movements around the Web. Too many can eventually disable the computer. Kazaa, for example, is reportedly loaded with spyware[9]. But now even BitTorrent users are downloading it (see my 6/24/05 issue). Some of these little software surprises are even more intrusive - the kind that logs your keystrokes and provides the person who controls it with passwords, credit card numbers, and other confidential information on the computer. This too can be inadvertently downloaded from other people's computers on the file-sharing networks.

Viruses. Remember that the P2P services are actually huge networks of individual machines linked together by the software they provide. These days, viruses and worms rarely do real damage to individual PCs. Now they're more likely to install "trojan" software that allows your PC to be controlled by someone else - such as spammers who want to make money by using thousands of "zombie" PCs to send ads about low-cost mortgages and cheap drugs. Because standard anti-virus software doesn't detect viruses downloaded via P2P, file-sharers' computers are vulnerable to the viruses on other machines on the P2P networks and to the people controlling them. If your child downloads Kazaa, your PC could be used, among other things, as a porn spam distributor. One US study found that nearly half of the files on Kazaa contained viruses or other malicious code.[10] "In my opinion," a file-sharer confided, "the FastTrack network [of which Kazaa is a part] is slowly dying; now it's so full of viruses it's unusable."

Hard-drive clogging. Computers' storage capacity is certainly growing, but - besides spyware - nothing loads up and slows down a computer more than media, game, and software files, exactly what's traded on the P2P networks. If your family PC has been performing slowly, file-sharing is very likely to be the culprit. See below for information on software that can tell you what media files and P2P software are on your system.

Chat. Many file-sharing networks are associated with online chat, and most parents know the potential, here, for children to be contacted by strangers. This is definitely not the biggest risk in file-sharing (a P2P ueser recently told me file-sharers generally don't chat because they like to stay anonymous), but it'd be good to include this in any family discussion on file-sharing. If chat's allowed, a good rule would be never to discuss anything but the content being shared and don't let any online relationships with strangers develop from those conversations. Don't miss for all the information a family would need on this online-safety risk.


Talk about file-sharing together. A lot of parents don't have any idea what's happening on the family computer where file-sharing is concerned. A family discussion is always the best first step. See what your kids will tell you, ask them to show you how it works, and - before you make any decisions about stopping or allowing household file-sharing - find out what everybody's thinking about the ethics and legalities involved, whether porn's been stumbled upon, how the PC's performing, whether there's spyware protection, etc.

Configure the software with your child. If you allow file-sharing, at least make sure everybody's clear that the preferences and options in each P2P program are configured for maximum PC and child security - whether or not you actually sit down and configure the software with older teens. If you allow sharing, make sure nothing but media files are shared. Check to see if the program has a "private sharing" feature (allowing sharing only with designated friends, like a "buddy list") and consider choosing that option if available. If Kazaa is the P2P service of choice, check out its "Family Filter" and - to minimize kids' exposure to porn - consider using its feature that blocks all image and video files. Also visit the site where the P2P software is downloaded (e.g.,, LimeWire, or and see if they provide any tips for parents, care-givers, and other PC owners for safe use.

P2P parental controls. File-sharers probably won't like this option, but there is software that gives parents some control over P2P activity on the PC. One option is SmartGuard, Inc.'s Blockster, which monitors and blocks file-sharing software, giving parents an unhackable override password for all such programs on the system - anything that allows the transfer, or sharing, of files from that PC, including IRC chat. Some file-sharing services themselves are now offering parental controls

P2P monitoring. links to free P2P-detection software available for the downloading at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's site. The US's film industry trade association (the MPAA) recently made similar software available for free at With this software, parents can find out what file-sharing programs and media files (music, photos, movies, etc.) are on the PC and choose whether or not to delete them.[11]

Possible family P2P policies

Here are several ways to go for musically minded families (customize them for your family!):

Related news


1. 3/04 Harvard/University of North Carolina study. More than 35 million Europeans have downloaded music from file-sharing services - Forrester research. The very latest figures can be found on p.7 of this pdf file: "Peer-to-Peer File-Sharing Technology: Consumer Protection and Competition Issues," Staff Report of the US Federal Trade Commission, June 2005
2. For an arresting picture of Web-vs.-P2P Net activity, see this snapshot of network traffic at CacheLogic (Web use is that narrow little red band - gray, fuchsia, and aqua all represent file-sharing activity).]
3. The copyright info page at IFPI's Web site
4. "No Fears: Laptop D.J.'s Have a Feast" New York Times, 9/10/04
5. A 2002 US Government Accountability Office study (cited in a 2005 FTC report on file-sharing) found that, in a search of popular singers, actors, and cartoon characters on Kazaa, 49% contained "some form of pornography." A 2003 corporate-funded study found that porn accounted for more than 40% of the traffic on the Gnutella network, which connects P2P services like Morpheus, LimeWire and BearShare, and the illegal form of it - child pornography - 6%. Some pedophile rings actually use the P2P networks as their distribution channels. Here's 2003 CNET coverage of a US House of Representatives subcommittee report on porn on P2P networks.
6."Usability and privacy: a study of Kazaa P2P file-sharing," 2002 at HP Labs (see also an informal survey of inadvertent sharing among LimeWire users by the Washington Post's Brian Krebs: "Extreme File Sharing")
7. "Overexposed: The Threats to Privacy and Security on the File-Sharing Networks," from the US House of Representatives, 2003 (see also CNET coverage, "Congress cracks down on P2P porn"
8. June 2005 FTC study - downloadable pdf file (see Note #1)
9. According to a 2/05 CNET report, "employees [of Kazaa's Sharman Networks themselves] 'hate' installing the [company's own] software because it has ill effects on their computers."
10. "Kazaa delivers more than tunes," Wired News, 1/04
11. from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) provides free media/P2P-scanning software called "Parent File Scan." Click on the red button in the upper-left-hand area of this page to download it.

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