Dangers of Peer-to-Peer Networking

What is Peer-to-Peer Networking?

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networking refers to networks in which peer machines distribute tasks or workloads among themselves. P2P networks are commonly used on the Internet to directly share files or content between two or more machines. Content-sharing P2P networks include BitTorrent, Gnutella2, and eDonkey. P2P applications often, but don't always, take the same names as the networks they run on. These include BitTorrent, PopcornTime, and eMule.

Content-sharing P2P networks are used to share music and videos over the Internet.  Often this violates copyright and other laws (creating multiple copies of a copyrighted work is illegal), and can also violate various UT or ISP policies (e.g., bandwidth consumption).

A P2P application allows you to download files and folders from others' hard drives, and allows others to download files or folders from your computer's hard drive. The scope of what is shared varies. Some P2P programs will share everything on your computer with anyone by default -- careful inspection and configuration may be needed to use such programs without violating laws or creating additional problems for yourself.  Content shared via P2P applications is sometimes infected with malware, sometimes contains legally protected copyrighted material, or may sometimes contain personal data accidentally shared!

Once a P2P application is installed on your machine, much of the P2P activity is automatic and runs unnoticed in the background.  Computers running this software will be busy exchanging files whenever the machine is turned on and connected to the Internet.  Unless you take steps to stop or remove the software, it will likely run all the time and be in use whenever you are connected to the Internet.

Since you often don't know where the P2P software gets the content you are downloading, you may end up with illegal, fake, modified, or poor quality versions of the content you are looking for.  You should always use a legal, reputable site for your content to make sure you stay safe, are complying with the law, and are receiving the actual content and quality you want.

Consequences of Copyright Infringement

Downloading and sharing files that contain copyrighted material is against the law and University policy. The responsibility to restrict sharing of, and verify the legality of, your downloads lies solely with you. This is what can happen to you if you are found to infringe on copyrighted material:

  • Disciplinary action. Your name may be forwarded to the Dean of Students Office for disciplinary action. Sanctions include fines, termination of university network access and/or university probation.
  • Legal consequences. Copyright holders may offer a legal settlement option (a.k.a. Early Settlement Letter) or pursue legal action against you.
  • Financial implications. If a copyright holder chooses to pursue legal action, the minimum damage for sharing copyrighted material is $750 per file (in addition to legal and court fees). While you might be able to settle for less,  there is no way to predict how much you may be required to pay in settlement costs.

The Federal statute, titles 17 and 18 of the U.S. Code, provide criminal penalties for infringing on copyrighted material. In the worst case, infringements can be punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Repeat offenders can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.  Violators can also be held civilly liable for actual damages, lost profits, or statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringement, as well as attorney’s fees and costs.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it a crime to create software that helps distribute copyrighted materials. It also limits an Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) liability if the ISP notifies the alleged infringer and suspends access to illegal copies of the copyrighted materials.  As an ISP, UT Austin is required to comply with the DMCA notices it receives.

Legal Alternatives for Downloading Content

Some of the sites listed here provide some or all content at no charge. They are funded by advertising or represent artists who want their material distributed for free. This is not an exhaustive list of all content that is legally available; however, it offers you some legal options for content.  We do not endorse any of the sites listed below. We provide them as examples and for informational purposes only.

Movies: You can watch many movies online legally, for free or via a pay service.  Legal sites include Hulu Movies, Joost Movies, Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix, CinemaNow, Walmart Movies, UltraViolet, and BlockBuster.

TV Shows: You can watch many TV shows online legally, for free or via a pay service, or as part of your contract with a provider such as a cable company.  Legal sites include Hulu TV, Joost TV, Clicker TV, Netflix TV, Walmart TV, and iTunes TV.

Music: You can listen to music online legally, for free or via a pay service. Legal sites include Pandora, Slacker, iLike, Music Rebellion, Last.fm, Blip.fm, Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music Unlimited, iTunes Music, eMusic, AmieStreet, Mindawn, and Zune.

Others: Other popular sites that provide access to copyrighted materials include ESPN3, GameFly, GameTap, and Steam.

Additional Resources:

Please check out the following links for additional information on this topic.
http://www.utexas.edu/its/secure/articles/keep_it_legal.php
http://www.utexas.edu/its/secure/articles/peer-to-peer_perils.php

Written by CNS OIT staff
Questions or comments? The best and easiest way to contact us is via the CNS Help Desk form.

See also: Networking, Security