The other day my friend's thirteen-year-old son, Ben, asked if I could recommend a good peer-to-peer network to download free MP3s, addictive pornography, and to expose his parent's computer to a host of dangerous spyware and computer viruses.okay he didn't really. What he did ask me was if I knew anything about file sharing and if I'd used any good peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.

The truth is, Ben's a good kid, and like many teens and adults who discover file sharing, P2P networks appear to be a harmless way to gain access to an endless supply of music and media. Unfortunately, there are costs that come with downloading free MP3s.

What Is File Sharing?

File sharing is made possible by connecting a network of individual computers; these are linked through the Internet by a single file sharing program (such as the original Napster, Kazaa, WinMX, LimeWire, Morpheus and so on).

To take advantage of file sharing, all one has to do is download and install the file sharing program, then through the Internet, browse the millions of music files available on other connected user's computers. Know also that once you're connected to a file sharing program, you are expected to "share" your MP3s with others—in essence, you are required to give millions of strangers access to your shared computer files in order to add to the ever-growing pool of media.

Is File Sharing Safe for My Kids?

P2P networks are used for more than passing free MP3s around; other files available for download include pirated video games, pre-released, full-length movies and thousands of video clips—most of which are pornographic.

Because P2P networks don't operate through regular web browsers with website addresses, parents can't track what their kids have been up to through the use of conventional methods, such as website browser histories.

Also, many Internet filter software programs can't protect against P2P network sharing, making it possible for teens to gain access to pornography that normally would be blocked by Internet filters. This means parents and guardians have less control over what minors can access while engaged in file sharing.

Worse yet, kids can find pornography through P2P networks whether they are looking for it or not. Some video files found through file sharing are purposely mislabeled—bearing titles that kids and teens look for—but in fact contain hardcore pornography.

Can Downloading Free MP3s Harm My Computer?

We are all taught not to take things offered by strangers. Why? Because often the risk of such typically outweighs the benefit. But in the anonymous world of file sharing, the opposite seems to be the norm—we take from strangers all the time without a second thought.

Some free MP3s come with hidden agendas. Taking that "free candy" can hurt you. As with free download offers on the Internet, many files available through P2P networks—free MP3s or otherwise—are laced with damaging computer viruses and spyware programs. This can make it possible for others to exploit personal information stored on your computer, leading to identity theft.

Does Downloading Free MP3s Hurt the Music Industry?

Here is the million dollar question on debate: does file sharing cheat music artists and producers out of income?

Proponents for file sharing say that downloading free MP3s isn't any different than what's been going on with recordable tape cassettes for years and that file sharing gives you the freedom to pick and choose the songs you want without having to purchase a whole CD.

Another common rationalization is that musicians make millions of dollars and that they won't miss the money. Some also justify file sharing as a way to get an artist's name noticed in the public eye, faster than traditional promotion methods. (This is legally sound if the artist has consented.)

Regardless of your reasons, the irony behind file sharing is that the artist that you like enough to seek out, download and listen to their music are the very people that lose. It's like walking up to someone you like, forcibly taking their money and then saying, "oh yeah, by the way, I think you're awesome."

Is it Against the Law to Download Free MP3s?

Copyright laws give the person or company that's responsible for creating an original work the right to control the distribution of that work. This control includes the price and number of the copies distributed.

P2P networks take distribution control away from the lawful owner, denying them the ability to collect profits from that distribution. This is another point where real life doesn't correspond with common computer practices—most people wouldn't think of shoplifting from a music store, but downloading free MP3s is considered not only okay, but hip and cool.

Some are paying the price. The entertainment industry has opened lawsuits against individual file sharers in order to dampen the public's enthusiasm for illegal sharing. (And, likely, the entertainment industry has more money to pay lawyers than you do.)

Is there an Alternative to Downloading Free Mp3s Illegally?

An option that marries the convenience and freedom of file sharing with the safety and legality of a reputable business: music download services. Through these online stores, you can search for, inexpensively purchase and own almost any song legally, without being required to buy the entire album.

You'll avoid spyware that disreputable file sharing services attach to their offerings, steer clear of addictive pornography and damaging computer viruses. Your conscience will be clear, your computer will be rockin' and your wallet will still be pretty full. Music download services offer a happy ending for both the entertainment industry and for you. That, Ben, is your answer.

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