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Protecting Children from Porn

File Sharing Programs Make Access Easy

Changing technology has led to peer-to-peer file sharing networks which allow an individual to connect directly to another user without the need for a central server. One of the best known examples of a peer-to-peer network is the now-defunct Napster, which allowed users to download music.

A side effect of this downloading is the ease at which children can be exposed to and access pornography.

"Without a central hub online to filter through, children can receive images and solicitations that normally would be blocked," said U.S. Rep. Thomas Davis (R-11), during a Committee on Government Reform hearing held earlier this year. "In addition, the programs are easy to install and the electronic files can be downloaded free of charge. These networks have became an increasingly popular mechanism for the trafficking of very graphic pornography, including child pornography."

THE COURT-ORDERED DEMISE of Napster, due to copyright infringement issues, did nothing to curb the emergence of other peer-to-peer networks. Some of the most popular being Kazaa, Grokster and BearShare, which allow users to play and download music, image and video files. Kazaa's site boasts "Over 232 million Kazaa Media Desktops downloaded so far. Over 2.6 million downloaded last week."

Fairfax County Public Schools, said Maribeth Luftglass, chief information officer, does not use peer-to-peer networks. The computers within the schools and the Blackboard system many teachers and students use for class assignments have filters, however, no system is perfect.

"Once a student gets a file, it is very difficult to block it," Luftglass said. "Kids can find pornography by accident."

She suggests parents work with their Internet provider to find out what filtering systems are available and to monitor what children are doing while they are using the computer, which can be as easy as placing the computer in a central room.

"Parents can go back to the history browser and check where their kids have been after the fact," Luftglass said.

Limiting children's access outside of the home, however, can be difficult. The county library system, for example, does not filter its computers and employs an honor system when it comes the use of its computers.

"We don't allow 'chatting' on the public PCs," said Lois Kirkpatrick, the Fairfax County Public Library public information officer, referring to chat rooms. "When you sign up, you agree to our policy."

The policy, however, does not prohibit downloading. According to the library system's Web site, downloading is permitted to the user's diskette as long as it does not take more than 30 minutes to complete.

Kirkpatrick said parental permission is not required for children to use the library system's computers, but, "parents should be aware of what their kids are doing."

AWARENESS is precisely the problem said the congressman. "The current dynamic leaves parents in an untenable position, either watch over your child's shoulder every second he or she is at the computer, or deny them use, or run the risk of exposure to this disgraceful material," Davis said.

According to Davis' testimony, research has shown more than 40 percent of the people who download files from these per-to-peers file sharing networks are under the age of 18. In addition, searches using popular cartoon character names, singers and actors can result in graphic pornographic images.

Daniel Rung, founder of Grokster, also testified at the hearing and suggested filtering the file sharing programs is possible. He also said that access to pornography has always been a part of the Internet and is not a result of the peer-to-peer networks. Even so, he said, access to pornography by children is a problem.

"Although these file sharing programs were not designed with pornography in mind, today's file sharing programs provide a new avenue of access to this type of material. Since today's file sharing programs have no control over the contents that users share with other users, it is easy for a child user to encounter such pornographic material," Rung said. "It has been estimated that as much as 50 percent of the files traded through file sharing programs consists of pornographic material. And unfortunately, just like the rest of the Internet, some unknown amount of that material is child pornography."

Rung said many file sharing programs now include "bad word" filters and third party content filtering programs, such as Net Nanny and CyberSitter.

Most importantly, he said it is up to parents to educate their children as to what is age appropriate, supervise their Internet use, restrict the child's level of user access on the computer, and to install content filtering programs that are password protected.