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P2P Back in Congressional Crosshairs

Businesses and consumers using peer-to-peer (P2P) networks are inadvertently exposing confidential files to others, according to testimony Tuesday before the House Government and Oversight Committee.

P2P networks have been in the Congressional crosshairs for years, primarily for their ability to swap music files in violation of copyright laws.

The Supreme Court in 2005 ruled P2P networks were legal but companies that promoted file sharing of copyrighted material pursued illegal business models.

The furor over P2P networks mostly died with the Supreme Court decision but in March the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) released a report suggesting that inadvertent file sharing may still be a serious problem.

"Although P2P technology confers significant benefits, such as allowing for faster file transfers, conserving bandwidth and storage requirements, and saving on maintenance and energy costs, it also has been associated with risks to consumers," Mary Engle, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Division of Advertising Practices, told lawmakers Tuesday.

In addition to the traditional threat of exposure to spyware and adware that is sometimes bundled with P2P software, Engle said consumers also might inadvertently share their own personal or sensitive files with others.

Mark Gorton, CEO of the popular file-sharing company LimeWire, said inadvertent file sharing continues to plague some P2P users who don't fully understand how the technology works.

"At LimeWire we continue to be frustrated that despite our warnings and precautions, a small fraction of users override the safe default setting that come with the program and end up inadvertently publishing information that they would prefer to keep private," Gorton said.

Gorton said LimeWire is working on a new generation of user interfaces and tools designed with beginning P2P users in mind. He also noted P2P networks continue to have problems with child pornography and copyrighted files being traded over the networks.

"The Internet is a technology which allows for many novel behaviors. Unfortunately, some of these new behaviors are detrimental to society," Gorton said.

"The regulatory framework that surrounds the Internet has not kept pace with technical advancements, and currently, no effective enforcement mechanisms exist to address illegal behavior on P2P networks."

Gorton noted that a handful of colleges and universities have instituted a notice-based warning system for users that disconnect students who ignore multiple warnings. According to Gorton, the practice has "sharply reduced" child pornography and copyright infringement on their campus networks.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee, said Congress must decide if legislation is needed or whether oversight tools and enhanced consumer education solve, or least mitigate, the problem.

"The purpose of this hearing is not to shut down P2P networks or bash P2P technology," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif., chairman of the House panel, said Tuesday.

"P2P networks have the potential to deliver innovative and lawful applications that will enhance business and academic endeavors, reduce transaction costs, and increase available bandwidth across the country."

Waxman added, "At the same time, however, we must achieve a balance that protects sensitive government, personal, and corporate information and copyright laws."