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FTC testimony highlights file-sharing dangers

A consumer protection official tells Congress that P2P networks can expose consumers, including children, to unsolicited content such as pornography.

The Federal Trade Commission told a congressional committee on Thursday that it believes file-sharing software poses a threat to consumers and children in the form of mislabeled content such as pornography.

Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that file-sharing, or peer-to-peer, software can "expose consumers to unwanted pornography, as well as games, videos and music that may be inappropriate for children."

Beales said the FTC issued a related consumer alert advising parents about the perceived risks of file sharing and warned consumers about potential computer security and information privacy dangers posed by improperly configuring file-sharing software. The testimony also detailed FTC law enforcement efforts aimed at discouraging Internet-based fraud and inappropriate advertisements for porn.

To garner information regarding the use of peer-to-peer networks, the FTC said it examined four popular file-sharing services, none of which was found to offer what the group considered adequate information on the content present in files being made available for download. By leaving the responsibility of accurately depicting the sort of content being offered in the hands of file sharers themselves, the FTC believes peer networks are putting consumers at greater risk.

In its testimony, the FTC said the practice among file-sharing services of filtering content based on the names given to files by peer-to-peer users offered little protection against adult content.

"While each of the file-sharing programs examined by the FTC provided filters that blocked access to materials that contained offensive or otherwise adult-related content, all of these filters operate by only examining language found in the title or descriptor of the file, rather than the content of the file," Beales told the subcommittee, according to a transcript of his testimony. "Moreover, these filters may not be effective when users label files inaccurately, which can result in the transfer of files with pornographic or other unwanted content."

The FTC also maintains that while the rise of the Internet has given consumers access to information and services "unimaginable 20 years ago," it believes that criminals have effectively used the Web to create new opportunities to commit fraud. Beales went so far as to label criminals as the "ultimate early adopters" of new technology, based on the sheer volume of Web-based schemes. In response, he said the FTC has launched more than 300 Internet-related law enforcement actions, most which have targeted criminal activity involving pornography and the Internet.

After hearing the FTC report, the House subcommittee agreed to approve the testimony by a vote of 5-0.

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

The commerce subcommittee is considering a bill, introduced in Congress last year, that 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 FTC 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.

The P4 bill would require peer-to-peer companies to honor the wishes of parents who have put a "do not install" notification in their computers, indicating that they don't want file-swapping software on their children's machines.