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Battle against online pornography now more complex with file sharing

WASHINGTON (BP)–A new front in the battle over online pornography has opened, disabling in the process some of the defenses used by parents to protect their children from such material, according to a new congressional report.

Internet file-sharing programs are enabling users to download sexually explicit videos and photographs onto home computers, circumventing much of the filtering software designed to block the reception of pornography from the World Wide Web. Hard-core adult pornography, child porn, sexual violence and bestiality are accessible without charge to people of all ages through new file-sharing programs such as Music City Morpheus, Aimster and BearShare. Users of such programs can even be unintentionally exposed to pornography when searching for other images.

That unsettling news for many parents and others concerned about the proliferation of pornography came in a report issued by a section of the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee. The special investigations division of the committee’s minority staff did the research at the request of Reps. Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., and Steve Largent, R.-Okla.

“These new file-sharing systems are bringing a problem into our homes that we’ve never had before,” Waxman said in a written statement released with the report July 27. “It’s not a question of gratuitous violence or bad language or bad taste — it’s an explosion of the most demeaning and dehumanizing exhibitions imaginable, and it can appear on our children’s computer screens whether they ask for it or not.”

Waxman and Largent said they are not proposing legislation to deal with the problem at this time. Their purpose in issuing the report was to inform parents of the problem and to suggest some steps they may take to respond to it.

With file sharing, computer users are able to download the software one time, then avoid using a Web browser or website to access the files they are seeking. Although they have to go online, they can simply click on the program’s icon and become connected to a network with other users from whom they can download files and with whom they can trade files.

The file-sharing program Napster popularized such technology in recent years by making it possible for users to download MP3 audio files of songs. At the height of its popularity, Napster said it had as many as 70 million users, many of those young people. Court action in response to a legal challenge by the recording industry for copyright infringement, however, crippled Napster’s popularity.

A new wave of file-sharing programs has filled the vacuum. Unlike Napster, these new networks make it possible to download all types of files, including videos and photographs, according to the committee report. They also do not use a central server, which Napster did, according to the report. Like Napster, the content downloaded is free of charge.

The committee staff’s investigation revealed nearly every form of pornography available on the Web also can be accessed through file sharing. A staff search July 20 for “porn” on the file-sharing program BearShare produced 25,000 results, including more than 10,000 video files. The investigation showed the pornography files available encompass a wide range of sexual activities, including child and violent pornography, as well as bestiality.

File-sharing users can access pornography without attempting to, according to the report. Staff searches for videos of singers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who are especially popular with young teenagers, produced “significant numbers of pornographic files,” the report said. A staff search using the file-sharing program Aimster July 24 for “Britney Spears” videos found more than 70 percent of the files returned were videos with pornographic titles.

Most filtering software is ineffective in blocking access to porn through file sharing, according to the report. The staff examined seven leading versions of filtering software. Using the default setting usually installed, the investigators found five of these versions failed to block access to pornography through file-sharing programs.

Waxman and Largent included the following among suggestions to parents on how to deal with this problem:

— Communicate with your children to learn how much they know about file-sharing programs and to discuss what is appropriate use of the Internet.

— Establish guidelines for parental oversight of computer use.

— If you have filtering software installed, find out if it is effective with file-sharing programs.

The new file-sharing programs have achieved explosive popularity. An Internet clearinghouse for software reported more than 3.1 million copies of these file-sharing programs were downloaded in a recent week, the report said. One of the programs, Music City Morpheus, reported 518,000 simultaneous users July 18, matching the popularity of Napster the year before, according to the report.

The report and the parental tips may be accessed at www.house.gov/reform/min/porn.html.