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GAO: P2P Porn no Worse Than on Web

Contradicting lurid testimony at several congressional hearings earlier this year, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) insists that pornography available on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks is "not necessarily" more dangerous than what is readily available on Web sites.

In a letter to Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, director of Information Management Issues at the GAO Linda D. Koontz says "pornography is also easily accessible through other electronic means, such as Web sites, and the risk of children's inadvertent exposure to pornography exists on these other mediums as well."

The GAO stance comes on the heels of Hatch's statement that the easy availability of pornography on P2P networks presented many risks. At a September Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Hatch said, "I am currently considering legislative solutions to the many risks inherent in the use of peer-to-peer networks. Recent studies have shown that millions and millions of pornographic files are available for downloading on these networks at any given time."

Hatch based his remarks on a March GAO report entitled, File-Sharing Programs: Peer-to-Peer Networks Provide Ready Access to Child Pornography. While the courts have ruled pornography is protected free speech, child pornography is illegal in almost every civilized nation.

Koontz's letter to Hatch points out the GAO report was based on tips received by National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The NCMEC, a federally funded non-profit organization that serves as a national resource center for information related to crimes against children, operates a CyberTipline that receives child pornography tips provided by the public and ISPs.

Last year, the NCMEC CyberTiplines received more than 62,000 Internet-related reports of child pornography. Of these, 840, or about 1.4 percent, were related to peer-to-peer networks.

"However, we do not know if the number of reports received by NCMEC accurately reflects the volume of child pornography on peer-to-peer networks or on the Internet in general, since the reports are based on tips that the public or system users submit rather than a systematic analysis of network content," Koontz wrote.

The GAO calculates the actual introduction of child pornography on P2P networks would be difficult to detect or stop, but it is possible for law enforcement officials to discover the identities of individuals sharing child pornography and other illegal material on P2P networks.

Unlike traditional Web sites, which have centralized content management, users control the content available on P2P networks, and the users of the network are constantly changing.

"Nonetheless, law enforcement agencies can search peer-to-peer networks for child pornography and investigate reports of illegal material submitted to the NCMEC and other agencies," Koontz wrote. "Once child pornography files are identified on a peer-to-peer network, legal mechanisms can be used to identify, investigate, and prosecute the individuals sharing the illegal files."

The GAO letter comes as Congress is considering a number of bills that could have an impact on the P2P business, which also includes instant messaging, collaborative meeting applications and distributed computing.

In July, Joe Pitts, R.-Pa., introduced legislation requiring file-swapping services to obtain parental consent before allowing children to use P2P network software. The Protecting Children from Peer-to-Peer Pornography Act (H.R. 2885) would also mandate that distributors of P2P software provide notice that pornographic material can be accessed through the networks and requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to develop "do-not-install beacons" to block downloading of P2P software.

P2P United, the new trade group of the file-sharing industry, claims Pitts' bill is based "factually flawed premises" and discriminatory since it does apply to any and all software which affords internet connectivity in general, such as Web browsers and search engines.

"Singling out peer-to-peer programs will do little if anything to increase the safety and security of children or adults," P2P United states in a position paper. "Indeed, such ineffectual 'feel good' legislation runs a significant risk of providing parents and others with a false sense of security."