Peering Into Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

Peer-to-peer (or P2P) file sharing occurs through an online service that enables users to transfer files from other users' computers to their own, and vice versa. Software programs are available that allow computer users to rip, or copy, songs from a CD and convert them to MP3 files — which users then enjoy sharing with one another through one of these services.

The problem is that in many cases, this exchange is highly suspect. In fact, the courts decided to shut down the original P2P network, which you may remember as Napster (Napster exists as a download-only service today and is totally legal). Other services that have opened in the meantime are Kazaa, Morpheus, and Limewire, among others. The problem is that these networks are still illegal. They are distributing copyrighted music without the permission of the owners of that music, and the owners are not being compensated for the distribution.

Of course, this law applies only to files that are distributed without permission of the owner. If someone wants to give away his music (music that he created and owns the copyright to) on P2P, it's perfectly legal. Most download services are also offering the ability to share copies of songs legally among several sources. For example, you may be allowed to burn a certain number of copies of the song and transfer the file an unlimited number of times to your portable audio player. Hey, it's their dime. If these services give you permission, go right ahead. Again, it's illegal only if you're acting against your rights as a purchaser and against the wishes of the copyright owner.

In addition to the dubious legality of sharing files, other problems can result from using P2P. Both the files exchanged and the service itself can cause the following problems:

  • Viruses and undesirables: You can't always be sure what you order from the menu of a P2P site is what you're going to get. You may get the song, but you may also get something much worse. Unscrupulous users have been known to mask viruses as audio files and turn them loose on P2P networks. Other undesirable elements, like pornography, can also be inserted into the network to look like songs. It's always a question of what you're going to get, and it may be better to be safe than sorry.
  • Spyware and adware: Both the service and the files may be responsible for putting software on your machine known as spywareor adware. This software can track what you do on your computer and where you go on the Internet, and use it to foul up your system. It can increase the amount of pop-up ads you see or change the home page of your browser. At its worst, this software can affect the performance of your computer by clogging the processor with unnecessary functions and tasks. This slows the system and increases your frustration.

You can take the following precautions to make sure that your system stays clean:

  • Don't install P2P file-sharing systems.
  • Install virus protection on your computer, and keep it up-to-date.
  • Regularly update Windows XP with the security patches that are available through Microsoft's Windows Update system.
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