File-Sharing Networks Face Child Porn Dilemma

Matt O'Conner
WASHINGTON — File-sharing networks and peer-to-peer software companies are trying to strike a balance between protecting their users while also helping authorities crack down on child pornography.

P2P companies have avoided placing controls over what users can trade and resisted efforts from the entertainment industry to force them to hand over information on users.

But law enforcement agencies have contended that such dedication to freedom and anonymity has made P2P channels havens for child porn traffickers, and they’re putting pressure on the P2P companies to help them nab offenders.

“We’re proposing that in those cases where we’ve got a transfer of illegal items — copyright, child porn, others — that they recognize they can, in fact, help us,” Edward Burbach, Texas deputy attorney general, said.

One study by congressional staffers revealed that hundreds of illegal images could be downloaded from file-sharing networks in minutes, prompting P2P companies to break their own rules about protecting users’ privacy when child pornography might be involved.

“[Child pornography] will always be illegal,” Marty Lafferty, CEO of P2P trade group Distributed Computing Industry Association, said. “It will always be something that the right approach is to eliminate it from the channel.”

On May 3, the DCIA introduced a consumer resource to help P2P users recognize, remove and report suspicious material. The service, called CPHotline.org, was developed in cooperation with the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection along with Cydtat Services and RazorPop.

To help eliminating child porn, P2P networks companies also are increasingly using data-tracking technology to identify users and giving police information on suspected child porn traffickers.

But taking such steps presents P2P companies with an interesting dilemma: Do they also surrender the names of users who illegally trade copyrighted material? It’s unlikely, because to do so would almost definitely put P2P sites out of business.

In fact, P2P companies have fretted that if users even think they are being watched, it could do serious harm to their profitability.

But representatives of the entertainment industry, which is currently challenging the existence of P2P networks before the U.S. Supreme Court in the MGM vs. Grokster case, want to know how the networks can justify the apparent hypocrisy in protecting the identities of file-sharers who are breaking the law by trading copyrighted material while turning in those who are suspected of child pornography.

It’s a charge Adam Eisgrau, executive director of P2P United, shrugs off. "Anybody who suggests that the misuse of P2P software to trade copyrighted materials by individuals is as serious a problem as child pornography really needs to re-evaluate their priorities," Eisgrau said.