FTC warns about file trading, spyware

The Federal Trade Commission issues a brief consumer warning about potential privacy concerns surrounding file-swapping software and spyware.

The Federal Trade Commission issued a brief consumer warning Wednesday about potential privacy concerns surrounding file-swapping software and spyware.

In the latest of a series of consumer privacy alerts, the agency stopped short of warning consumers not to use free file-trading software, but it said computer users should take care to understand and prevent a range of potentially unpleasant consequences for doing so.

"Make sure that you consider the trade-offs," the agency wrote. "File sharing can have a number of risks."

The alert cited the possibility that consumers might download viruses, share private or copyrighted files that could land them in legal trouble, or accidentally download mislabeled pornography.

The warning intensifies the drumbeat of concern over file-sharing software, as courts, legislators and copyright holders put more pressure on peer-to-peer networks and individual file-traders.

After years of warning of legal ramifications, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is now issuing close to 300 subpoenas a week for file swappers' names and addresses, a prelude to filing what will likely be thousands of copyright infringement lawsuits against individuals starting next month.

One group of federal legislators has proposed criminal penalties for people offering copyrighted files through peer-to-peer networks without authorization. Another group introduced a bill that would require peer-to-peer software companies to make sure minors have parental permission to use their networks.

Finally, Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif, introduced legislation earlier this week that would for the first time regulate spyware, requiring clear consent from computer users before software that monitors their surfing habits was installed on their computers.

In its consumer alert, the FTC suggested that computer users:

• Set up file-sharing software carefully, making sure that no private files or folders are being shared.

• Be aware of potential spyware, and think about using software that can prevent downloading or delete intrusive programs.

• Close connections when finished using file-sharing software, to avoid accidentally sharing files.

• Use and update antivirus software.

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