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Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

What is Peer-to-Peer File Sharing?

Peer-to-Peer file sharing, generally referred to as P2P, is a legal means of sharing files between computer users. P2P allows for quick and easy downloading of music, video, and other files. Rather than downloading material from the much-larger Internet, a user can download from a small P2P network. Creating a P2P network requires the right software (some of which is free). In order to maintain the speed and ease of P2P sharing, a user must share as much or more material than he downloads from others. Napster was the first popular P2P file sharing tool. Popular P2P programs include BitTorrent, eMule, Kazaa, and LimeWire. Others such as Acquisition are specifically for the Mac OS X operating system.


As connection speeds increased on the internet, the richness of information increased also. It became possible to share pictures, view small movies, and even swap music files all while connected online. It was in pursuit of a faster way to share friends’ music that Shawn Fanning created the file-sharing service dubbed Napster in 1999. It allowed those connected to the service to browse others’ music library and download their own copy of individual songs free of charge. College students were quick to take advantage of this new platform as it allowed them to use fast university networks to facilitate their search for music and other files. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) soon discovered the unauthorized distribution of this digital content, which is protected by copyright laws, and shut down Napster in February 2001.

The RIAA was successful in closing Napster’s doors in part because of its centralized servers that dealt with the distribution of the content, but just as the Internet has evolved rapidly over the past decade, the methods and structure of filesharing, or peer to peer (P2P) services have also changed. Mainly the shift has been from centralized servers to decentralized servers. In the past 10 years, there have been several iterations of peer to peer networks. All these P2P networks allow easy and free access to files, which in turn has exposed millions upon millions of users to new content. These decentralized solutions are 100% legal. Much of the content that is distributed through them, however, is not. Removing the company owned server from the architecture also removed legal responsibility of the company. It is up to users of the P2P software to follow the law.

Concerns for Parents

  • Viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and spyware can all be passed along in files shared on P2P networks. Contracting any type of Malware will slow your computer down or could even cause it to crash completely.
  • Most content filters do not block P2P file sharing. Joining in on a P2P almost guarantees your child access to objectionable content. An estimated 35% of all P2P material is pornographic.
  • Copyrighted materials can also be shared, breaking laws. A study by Palisade Systems showed 38% of file-sharing they observed was of copyrighted files.

How Can I Keep My Child Safe?

  • The odds that a child using P2P will come in contact with pornographic, illegal, and/or virus-ridden files are as common as searching the web, only without filters, firewalls or warnings. Because of this, you may want to limit your child’s activity with these sites.
  • Talk to your child about being cautious. Opening any file is risky unless one is confident that the source is trusty AND that the file is clean. Even friends and family may inadvertently pass along malware, so being sure of both the source and the file content is critical. One indication of this is to read any comments left behind by others who have participated in the P2P network. These previous participants will usually mention problems with the files, including malicious behaviour. If you have problems with a file, be sure to comment about it so others can be warned.
  • Back up any sensitive data on your computer. No matter how smart or careful you think you are, and no matter how trustworthy you think your antivirus software may be, using P2P puts your computer at high risk. Keep any important files backed up to an external memory device in case of a crash.

Where Can I Learn More?