P2P Networks Get a Bad Rap Because of Porn Sub-Communities

P2P

When Gnutella is used to download and share child pornography, as it was in Jesse Ryan Loskarn’s case, the right to exist is questioned with regards to P2P networks. Does the research support banning P2P networks? One study from Lancaster University attempts to answer that question by asking another question. It asks whether or not deviant behavior is the norm on peer-to-peer networks. The authors of this study chose to focus on Gnutella since the software does not authenticate usernames or passwords, which makes it more anonymous than other P2P networks, such as eDonkey and Fastrack.

The study examined a random sampling of 10,000 search messages (Queries) and 10,000 search message responses (QueryHits) on Gnutella that were culled from three consecutive Saturdays. It found only 1.6 percent of the Queries and 2.4 percent of the QueryHits could be categorized as related to illegal pornography. The study acknowledged that these percentages constituted a small sub-community of users, but it specified that other aspects of this community belie the small numbers. For example, of those who share illegal pornography, 57 percent share nothing other than that, and the other 43 percent are not much better. For 83 percent of this group, over half of their shares are illegal pornography. The study also notes that these low percentages do not reflect the code words many users are probably employing when sharing illegal material in order to avoid detection.

Though Gnutella does not authenticate usernames and passwords, the network is not anonymous. In Loskarn’s case, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service along with Toronto Police Service had been investigating a company operating a website that sold child pornography DVDs through the mail and via online streaming. The investigation uncovered Loskarn as a customer through company invoices and purchase summaries along with Loskarn’s billing and shipping address. On Gnutella, authorities located Loskarn’s residential IP as an address offering files for download that had names consistent with child pornography. Authorities used the hash value of a file being offered from Loskarn’s IP address to downloaded 99 percent of a file with the exact same hash value. That file was a child pornography video.

In keeping with one of the study’s main objectives, to contribute to the ongoing discourse concerning the future and legality of P2P networks, the study predicted two different outcomes for the study based on the two main ways that anonymity and its effect on online behavior is viewed. One school of thought says that anonymity tempts people to engage in behaviors that they might not normally engage in because social sanctions and community disapproval have been removed. This view would support making P2P networks illegal. The opposing viewpoint is that anonymity does not lead to deviant behavior, or what society generally considers as deviant behavior, unless that behavior is a norm for that group. In other words, members of groups tend to conform to that group’s norm regardless of whether or not they are conforming or running counter to the norms of general society. This view says that the P2P networks are a reflection of deeper issues within our society that will not be solved by banning Gnutella and the like.

The authors state that the findings of their study support the latter approach. Anonymity in and of itself, the study claims, is not likely to trigger deviant behavior. The study further states that banning P2P networks may only serve to push these types of sub-communities into technologies that are even more difficult (or impossible) to enforce.

By Donna Westlund

Statement of Facts
Lancaster University
NBC Washington