Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks are groups of computers with similar software programmed to communicate and share files with each other. They differ from other kinds of networks because they are not controlled by common server computers, and thus are essentially peers.
There are different types and uses for P2P networks. The Internet is a good source for finding out more about these networks and how they work. While there are valuable and convenient uses associated with P2P networks, users should be aware of security issues and the risks associated with sharing copyrighted material. P2P network users should learn about these concerns before they participate, and children should get a parent or guardian's permission before starting to trade files on these networks.
Among the most common uses of some P2P networks is the sharing of music, movies, software programs, and other copyrighted material. If done without permission of the copyright holder or if not done for a lawful fair use, this kind of sharing is illegal and can lead to serious liability.
Groups of copyright owners have filed lawsuits against some P2P network providers. These industry groups are the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). For example, the US Supreme Court had a case that held that Grokster and other P2P networks like it can be sued for inducing copyright infringement committed by their users.
The RIAA and the MPAA have also filed lawsuits against a number of P2P members who have made copyrighted files available for download over P2P networks. Thousands of individuals, including several hundred Cox High Speed Internet customers, have been sued across the country and also in other countries. RIAA and MPAA search P2P networks for files with copies of works they own. They identify the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the person sharing or receiving, which is then recorded and used to track the person back through their Internet Service Provider (ISP). Once a lawsuit is filed, they subpoena the records of the ISP to learn the identity of the user assigned that IP address.
Cox and some other ISPs have questioned the legality of the procedures used in some of these cases, but the RIAA and the MPAA have succeeded in forcing some providers to turn over the names and locations of some P2P users that have allegedly shared copyrighted material. Both groups have used this information to pursue potentially costly infringement claims and some P2P users have had to pay thousands of dollars in damages.
To learn more about the position of the copyright holders, visit the United States Copyright Office website.
To learn more about the two advocacy groups opposing these suits, visit the following websites.
Many types of files can be shared through P2P networks. Some P2P users have downloaded or made available child pornography or other illegal data. Contrary to what some Internet users believe, sharing files using P2P networks does not provide complete anonymity. You should be aware that storing such files on your computer or trading them is a crime that can hold severe consequences.
Security Risks of Viruses and Spyware
Many programs that people use to access P2P networks contain potentially harmful features that are installed without the owner's knowledge. This can include malware, such as spyware or adware. Many of the files available for download via P2P networks have been intentionally corrupted with viruses.
Spyware is a serious concern with some P2P network software. Spyware is software that provides others with information about a computer without the owner's knowledge or consent. Spyware can allow others to copy files without permission, redirect Internet browsers, monitor keystrokes, deliver pop-up ads, and harm the performance of a computer and Internet service. Some anti-spyware programs do not remove spyware from P2P programs.
P2P software can also include or allow others access to install computer viruses and Trojan horse programs to a user's computer. These can lead to some of the same effects as spyware and can even allow a computer to be used remotely to send out large amounts of spam email. A computer with P2P software should always operate with a firewall and active anti-virus software. Make sure you know whether your program settings will affect how P2P software works.
Some users turn off the sharing feature of their P2P software as a way to avoid some of the problems the programs can cause. However, not all P2P programs block all access to a computer when the sharing feature is off.
Unintentional File Sharing
If you are receiving notifications concerning the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted files, but are certain that no one using your Internet service is running any P2P file-sharing programs, then it is possible that this activity is being conducted by an unauthorized party. This could be a neighbor or visitor who has access to your WiFi network. If you suspect this to be the case, you should change the encryption password to your WiFi network immediately.
If you do not believe that any unauthorized users are sharing files on your WiFi network, it is possible that one or more computers on your network are infected with a virus. It is important that you identify any computers on your network that are sharing copyrighted files without your knowledge. Such computers should be scanned for viruses. If this does not resolve the issue, the infected computer system should be re-imaged.
There are some media streaming applications and websites that use P2P networks such as BitTorrent to download and stream music and videos. While you are streaming this content, these applications and websites also share the content with other P2P users. These are also available for smartphones and tablets. Popcorn Time and Showbox are examples of legally downloadable apps that use BitTorrent. While it may seem that you are only viewing or listening to the streaming content on demand, your system is actually downloading it and may be sharing it without permission from the copyright holder. There are device and browser settings or parental controls that can be put in place to prevent the unintentional file sharing from occurring.