Yesterday the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held an interesting hearing on the inadvertent sharing of sensitive information over P2P networks. Some users misconfigure their P2P software and end up sharing far more than they bargained for, including credit card numbers, tax returns, medical records. The issue becomes even more serious when the user happens to be a government contractor who has brought home classified or sensitive national security documents.
The good news is that, while everyone took this problem seriously, many of the witnesses and members of the committee clearly understood that P2P is a useful technology and is likely to become even more critical to the Internet in years to come.
The bad news is that other participants (particularly those from Southern California and Nashville) appeared more interested in carrying water for the music and movie industries. They took the opportunity to castigate Limewire CEO Mark Gorton (who was brave enough to testify) for failing to implement copyright filtering at the entertainment industry's behest.
This was a frustrating distraction from the hearing's topic. Not only will filtering fail to slow "Internet piracy," but it's also likely to make the inadvertent sharing problem worse.
If Limewire were to implement mandatory copyright filters, the most likely outcome is that users will abandon it for an unfiltered alternative. Other companies might also succumb to pressure to use filters, but that will only drive users to alternatives distributed by an offshore company or by a dispersed set of hobbyist developers. The further underground users are pushed, the more likely they are to face less refined mechanisms to prevent inadvertent file sharing.
As we've said before, a better solution is to help empower users with control over their computers. Well-designed P2P applications should seek to inform users and give them clear, simple mechanisms to determine what is shared. So far, Limewire has been among the best applications in this regard.