Peer-to-Peer Networking and Pornography Charges

A major pornography sweep by New Jersey law enforcement recently resulted in the arrest of 27 people throughout the state. They face charges of owning and sharing child pornography by downloading material through peer-to-peer networks. New Jersey's attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa, reported that more than 100 law enforcement officers were involved in the sting, nicknamed "Operation Watchdog."

Court Ruling Equates File Sharing With Distribution

The state is developing its case based in part on a 2010 New Jersey appellate court decision that determined that placing child porn in an online folder that others can retrieve constitutes distribution. This typically occurs through a peer-to-peer network (also known as P2P), which allows all computers in a network access to files on other computers in the network. It allows users to share print, audio, video and images without the need for a central server. Users are considered responsible for the content they download or place in their shared folders and people have faced criminal charges in New Jersey and beyond based on the items they simply possessed or made available to others.

Why File Sharing Via P2P Networks Exposes Users to Legal Jeopardy

While there are several advantages to P2P networks, including being easy to set up and inexpensive to administer, they also have inherent weaknesses that make it easy to expose children to pornography or to accidentally download pornographic material. Many P2P networks automatically share material that is downloaded; an individual user must change the default setting to prevent this. This means that an individual P2P user might find unwanted material on his or her computer - items with misleading file names that were copied, viruses that were downloaded or pornographic images that were included along with other images with the same or similar file names.

How users access the P2P file-sharing network can make a difference - the software program Limewire has been implicated in numerous pornography file-sharing cases as well as some copyright violation cases. In fact, Limewire has been under an injunction since October 2010 to stop distributing its program. Not all versions of the Limewire software are covered by the court order, however, and some users have modified the program to allow it to continue functioning as a file-sharing program.

Other Types of Material Can Be Downloaded

Accidental access to child porn is not the only type of material that has drawn attention to P2P networks and their weaknesses. A few years ago, sharing and downloading music files created significant controversy. Pirated videos and other visual content are frequently distributed via P2P networks. Moreover, the networks can be used as tools by computer hackers, who can encrypt viruses in files that are then downloaded throughout the network.

Legal Implications of Downloading Pornography

Possessing pornography is not usually a crime, but possessing or distributing child pornography is a criminal act in almost all circumstances. Unfortunately, people sharing pornography over a P2P network are sometimes unaware that these files may contain both illegal and legal images.

What will happen to the defendants in New Jersey? They could face up to five to 10 years in prison if convicted on distribution of child pornography. However, there are several defenses against these charges - defenses that require a knowledgeable attorney to develop and present.

Numerous constitutional issues arise from cases involving P2P file sharing, and it is important to have knowledgeable legal counsel in such matters. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that law enforcement does not need to obtain a warrant to view files shared on P2P networks. However, some defendants have successfully used the argument that a warrantless search is a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Issues such as these make it critical to have a knowledgeable attorney well-versed in the constitutional aspects of porn-downloading charges. A lawyer at The Law Offices of David T. Schlendorf in Toms River, New Jersey, can advise you if you have been charged with possession or distribution of child pornography.

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