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P2P companies may face new scrutiny

A new Congressional bill would require file-swapping companies to get parental permission before allowing minors to use their services.

A bill introduced Thursday in Congress would require file-swapping companies to get parental permission before allowing minors to use their services.

The bill, called the Protecting Children from Peer-to-Peer Pornography (P4) Act and sponsored by Reps. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., and Chris John, D-La., would require the Federal Trade Commission to regulate peer-to-peer networks and take steps to ensure that children aren't accidentally coming across porn.

The bill's sponsors said as many as 40 percent of all files traded on the networks are porn.

"Our legislation gives parents the tools they need to protect their children from pornography and threats to privacy posed by peer-to-peer file-trading networks," Pitts said in a statement. "By working together to protect children, we are building a broad and bipartisan coalition."

The bill calls on the FTC to require peer-to-peer companies to get parental permission before minors use their services. It also would require peer-to-peer companies to honor the wishes of parents who have put a "do not install" beacon in their computers, indicating that they don't want file-swapping software on their children's machines. However, such technology has yet to be developed, and it's unclear how such a beacon would work.

The proliferation of porn on peer-to-peer networks has been on the government's radar screen for some time. In the spring, the General Accounting Office and the House Government Reform Committee released separate reports that document the issues that surround porn on peer-to-peer networks in anticipation of a Government Reform Committee hearing entitled "Stumbling Onto Smut." The committee's report found that file-blocking software didn't do enough to filter out porn files. The General Accounting Office report found that typing in words such as "underage" or "pre-teen" yielded numerous images of child porn.

The bill is one more example of increased scrutiny of peer-to-peer networks, which also have come under fire from copyright holders for allowing people to trade unauthorized copies of songs or movies without paying. The recording industry has begun sending out hundreds of subpoenas in an attempt to identify file swappers and possibly file lawsuits against them, nabbing all types of music fans in the process.

In response to the scrutiny, peer-to-peer companies are starting to take a more active role in the political process. Representatives of peer-to-peer companies Grokster and Sharman Networks, which is the distributor of Kazaa, are starting separate lobbying groups to represent the interests of file-swapping companies.

Adam Eisgrau, the new executive director of P2P United, the Grokster-backed trade group, said crackdowns on peer to peer are "not a good use of public policy."

"It is regrettable that people engaging in criminal conduct with regards to pornography have found these systems to be efficient, but these systems have dramatic and much larger uses in society," he said, adding that peer-to-peer systems can be used for trading research and other academic files. "Any tool can be used for good or bad."

Eisgrau said he had not yet met with the backers of the bill introduced Thursday, but he hoped to in the near future.