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"How to avoid being an online music pirate" Consumer Reports, October 2003

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File-sharing Risks

Peer-to-peer or file-sharing programs allow you to share your files with others on the Internet -- and vice versa. File-sharing is a new and interesting technology that shows promise for future applications. However, just like you shouldn't open email attachments from people you don't trust, you should be wary about downloading files from them as well. You never know what you or your kids may find on the hard drives of random strangers on the Internet. [How file-sharing works]

The best tip for file-sharing is to stop and think before downloading files through these networks. Here are more tips to keep your and your kids' file-sharing safe, secure and legal. Some of the risks associated with using file-sharing programs include:

Other file-sharing Risks

Computer Security

Sharing files with people you don't trust is a matter of hygiene -- and you should keep your computer as clean as possible. Using file-sharing networks creates a risk that viruses or other malignant code could be spread to your computer over the network. Computer security experts are starting to see viruses and malignant code (spyware) spread through file-sharing services. Viruses may damage your computer or interfere with your files; spyware may track your online activities and send that information to third parties. Spyware has been spotted in many places on file-sharing networks -- including packaged with the file-sharing clients themselves.

Kids' Access to Pornography

Many file-sharing programs allow children to access inappropriate audio and video clips -- most of a sexually explicit nature. Kids searching for popular music files may sometimes inadvertently pull up sexually explicit files that use the same keywords. For older children, parents should be concerned about their access to other people's video libraries that may contain inappropriate videos. If you're concerned about these things, make sure to check your computer for file-sharing programs. See a list of some file-sharing programs. Some parental-control tools on the market do not restrict access to file-sharing technologies. Check the GetNetWise Tools for Families database to search for tools that restrict access to file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks.

Copyright Law

Many things available on file-sharing networks, including many movies, songs, and video games, are copyrighted by the owner. That means the law protects the owner's right to limit who copies and distributes their content. What does a copyright mean for you? It means that downloading or sharing copyrighted music, movies and software without the copyright owner's permission could put you in serious legal trouble. In those cases, you or your family could be violating federal law and may be sued by the copyright owners or by the government. So, make sure that you or your family does not infringe copyrights while using file-sharing networks. Be smart, and keep your file-sharing legal. Don't allow users to upload your music files unless you're certain that you have permission to do so. You can simply disable the upload feature in your file-sharing program so that you don't inadvertently share files without permission. The University of Chicago's Web site has good instructions for disabling the upload feature in most file-sharing programs.


If mis-configured, some file-sharing programs may expose your entire hard drive to all other users of the file-sharing software. If you keep sensitive information on your computer, like your tax return information and online bank account data, check to make sure that you are not inadvertently making this available to thousands of strangers on the Internet.

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