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P2P: Virtual Libraries for Pedophiles?

Peer-to-peer networks (P2P) are serving as virtual libraries of child pornography according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report introduced Thursday at a House Committee on Government Reform hearing. While the courts have consistently ruled pornography to be protected free speech under the First Amendment, child pornography is strictly prohibited by federal statutes.

The decentralized nature of P2P networks, which allow users to download and directly share electronic files independent of a central server, has raised concerns among lawmakers and law enforcement officials that child pornography is spreading through the networks at an alarming rate. A number of reports have linked child pornography with pedophiles.

In addition, the House panel members were told, parents who depend on filtering software to protect their children from online pornography of any sort should be aware the programs are not effective in blocking obscene material on P2P networks.

Since Napster, the first widely popular P2P program, was shut down by court order, newer file-sharing programs like Kazaa, Grokster and BearShare have all surged in popularity and have become one of the most popular applications on the Internet, particularly among children and young adults. Unlike Napster, which allowed only the sharing of music files, the newer P2P networks allow the sharing of digital images.

The GAO report released Thursday conducted a Kazaa search for image files using 12 keywords known to be associated with child pornography on the Internet. Of 1,286 items identified in the search, approximately 42 percent were associated with child pornographic images. The remaining items included 34 percent were classified as adult pornography and 24 percent as non-pornographic.

In another Kazaa search, the U.S. Customs CyberSmuggling Center used three keywords to search for and download child pornography image files. The search identified 341 image files, of which approximately 44 percent were classified as child pornography and 29 percent as adult pornography.

The search results of both the GAO and the CyberSmuggling Center were consistent with the findings of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which claims that P2P networks are increasingly popular for disseminating child pornography. The organization says that since 2001, when it began tracking reports of child pornography on P2P networks, complaints have increased fourfold.

"Although peer-to-peer file-sharing programs are largely known for the extensive sharing of copyrighted digital music, they are emerging as a conduit for the sharing of pornographic images and videos, including child pornography," the GAO report states. "According to experts, pornographers have traditionally exploited -- and sometimes pioneered -- emerging communication technologies."

Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said in his opening statement Thursday, "Research has shown that more than 40 percent of the people who download files from file sharing programs are under the age of 18. And many of these pornographic images are appearing on our children's computer screens, whether they ask for it nor not. Seemingly innocent searches for files containing images of popular carton characters, singers and actors produce thousands of graphic pornographic images, including child pornography."

The committee's ranking minority member, Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.), added, "Most adults I talk to don't know about these (P2P) programs. But if they do, all they know is that the entertainment industry doesn't like them because they threaten their copyrights. This hearing is not about that issue. It's not about recording company profits of freedom of the Internet. It's about something more basic: how to raise children safely in today's digital age."

To illustrate the point of the availability of at least pornography on P2P networks, the committee viewed a live Kazaa search for "Olsen twins," the wholesome television duo popular with young girls. Among the more printable responses for the search were "Olsen Twins Topless," "Mary Kate Olsen Stripping," and "2 Hot Naked Blondes."

Although not a witness at the hearing, Kazaa lobbyist Philip S. Corwin distributed a press statement from Sharman Networks, the parent company of Kazaa.

"All of us at Sharman Networks utterly abhor child pornography. On the few occasions we've been contacted by law enforcement officials for assistance, we have fully cooperated to the best of ability and to the satisfaction of those officials," the statement said. "Kazaa Media Desktop is a peer-to-peer software application that allows users to share any file they choose. We have no ability to control files shared."

Daniel Rung, founder of Grokster, told the panel, "Although these file-sharing programs were not designed with pornography in mind, today's file sharing programs provide a new avenue of access of this type of material. Since today's file-sharing programs have no control over the contents that users share with other users, it is easy for a child to encounter such pornographic material."