FTC focuses on file swapping

Two-day workshop will look at consumer risks, copyright implications of peer-to-peer technology.

The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday will kick off a two-day workshop studying the consumer implications of peer-to-peer technologies.

The topics covered will range from the now-familiar effects of file-swapping services on entertainment companies to the potential risks consumers face by downloading content on peer-to-peer networks, or even just by installing the software.

The FTC does not have a specific proposal in front of it. It holds periodic workshops on new technologies to study issues raised and often comes up with recommendations to Congress afterward.

"There appear to be many current and potential business and consumer applications for P2P file-sharing technology," the organization said in a Federal Register notice announcing the meeting. "The...workshop is intended to provide an opportunity to learn how P2P file-sharing works, to discuss current and future applications of the technology (and) discuss the risks to consumers related to file-sharing activities."

The FTC has dabbled in file-sharing issues periodically, issuing a consumer warning in mid-2003 about the risks of bundled spyware, copyright lawsuits and pornography in using peer-to-peer software.

The organization subsequently worked with several file-sharing trade groups to develop a set of warnings that companies could post to help educate consumers about the risks. Those proposals are now complete, and the FTC sent a letter to Congress last week saying that--if implemented--they could help ameliorate some of the dangers.

This week's workshop comes as litigation over file-swapping networks has reached the highest pitch since the original days of Napster.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case dealing with the legal liability of peer-to-peer software companies for copyright infringement. Attorneys say the court's decision could fundamentally alter a precedent that many technology companies, including even Apple Computer with its iPod music player, have depended on for 20 years.

On Tuesday, the Motion Picture Association of America said it is stepping up its legal campaign against file-traders, pursuing criminal and civil action against key participants in BitTorrent, eDonkey and Direct Connect networks, all of which are widely used to distribute copyrighted movies and software.

The two-day FTC session will be broken up into several pieces. The first day will primarily look at consumer issues associated with file sharing, as well as possible future technology developments. Panelists will range from Justice Department officials to university computer science professors.

Thursday's sessions will focus more specifically on the technology's effects on the music industry and on copyrights as a whole.

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