October 07, 2009, 3:46 PM — In response to some incidents in which peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing caused sensitive information to show up on computers that it shouldn't be on, Congress reasonably decided to hold hearings in anticipation of actions it might take that would prevent future compromises. Unfortunately, one of the actions that Congress has taken is to consider passage of the most useless law imaginable.
One positive result of the hearings was the call by the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for a ban on the use P2P software on all government and contractor computers and networks. That would be useful, and enforceable, legislation. But apparently Rep. Mary Bono Mack wanted to show voters that she is protecting their interests as well. She demonstrated this concern by introducing the laughably pointless Informed P2P User Act (HR 1319) .
At first glance, the law seems logical. It requires vendors of P2P software to clearly explain to users whether and how their files will be shared, to clearly inform them about which files are being made available for searching and sharing, and to give users the opportunity to explicitly agree to any file sharing.
But how will this play out in reality? Vendors will incorporate new language to satisfy most of the law in the boilerplate of their user agreements. I don't think I'm making a controversial statement if I say that the vast majority of users do not bother to read software licensing terms before clicking "I agree" and getting on with the installation. I assume that readers of this column are more computer savvy than the general population, but how often do you thoroughly review terms of service and default settings on new software settings?
OK, so the general principles of file sharing are likely to be glossed over by most users. But they still will have the opportunity to confirm which of their files they will allow to be shared. Once again, though, things look different when theory meets reality. Very few users are likely to go through all of their files and specify which ones they want shared. They are more likely to just agree to "All" when presented with an option.
But aren't I being too harsh? Wouldn't this law give users the chance to say whether their files will be shared at all, and isn't that something worth legislating? Well, yes, it would do that. But there is no need for it. A lot of people who install P2P software do so in order to get data from other people and have no interest in making their own data available. They are able to do this now, without Mack Bono's law, because every P2P software package I have ever seen makes it abundantly clear how to do this.