P2P ban plan for government gets mixed response

Poorly crafted law could would also block some cost-saving file-sharing tech, some say

A proposal to introduce a bill seeking to formally ban the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing applications on government and contractor networks is evoking a mixed response.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) yesterday announced his intention to introduce such a bill, after he, and other members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony about numerous highly sensitive government documents being found on P2P networks as a result of inadvertent leaks.

Examples of such leaks that were highlighted at the hearing included details on the President's motorcade routes and the First Family's safe house location -- to be used in a national emergency -- being found on P2P networks.

Towns, who is the chairman of the House oversight committee, said that the leaks pointed to a continuing failure by developers of P2P software to implement features for preventing inadvertent data disclosure on file-sharing networks.

He said that a ban on P2P use on government and contractor computers and networks had become necessary because the developers had so far shown themselves to be "unwilling or unable" to ensure P2P user safety. "Its time to put a referee on the field," he said at the hearing.

The idea is an "excellent" one, said Thomas Sydnor, a director at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington based think-tank. "The real questions are over how it gets implemented and by whom," Sydnor said.

Over the past few years there has been some debate in Washington over the need to regulate use of P2P software on government networks, because of data leak fears, he said.

A 2004 directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget recommends measures federal agencies for governing the use of P2P software on federal agency and contractor networks, he said.

The question now is whether the time has come to transition the directive into a formal law with Congressional oversight or let it remain an executive directive, he said.

The difference right now is that if a federal agency is not complying with the OMB directive it remains an executive branch concern. "The debate is whether it should be done by law or by directive," he said.

Either way, the time has come for greater oversight over the use of file-sharing tools on government and contractor networks, especially because more government workers are logging into to work from home, these days Sydnor said. Care needs to be taken to ensure that any law that is crafted not "sweep in" useful file-sharing technologies as well, he added.

But Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation said a government wide ban on P2P use would have dubious benefit. "I'm sure there are at least as many leaks that occur thanks to unwise uses of e-mail and Web browsers," compared with P2P use, he said.

A ban specifically on P2P use would not go far enough in tackling leaks stemming from e-mail, browsers and other sources, von Lohmann said. At the same time, it could also have the effect of banning the use of potentially useful P2P tools within government enterprises, he said.

He pointed to the increasing use of BitTorrent and other P2P architectures by video game companies and licensed music services such as Spotify as examples where the technology can play a very useful role. "So it could be very difficult to ban only the "bad" software without also banning the "good" software," von Lohmann said.

"It would be an unfortunate outcome if, 10 years from now, the US government were unable to take advantage of new, cost-saving software products because of an antiquated P2P software ban enacted today."

This is the second time in the last two years -- and the third time overall -- that House oversight committee has held a hearing on the data leak risks associated with the use of P2P file-sharing software. If Towns does introduce a bill seeking to ban P2P, it would become the second piece of legislation introduced recently to deal with concerns stemming from inadvertent data leaks on file-sharing networks.

In March, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) introduced The Informed P2P User Act (H.R. 1319), which is designed to get file-sharing software developers to provide clear disclosure to users on whether and how their files will be made available for sharing with others on a P2P network.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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