File sharing refers to the process of exchanging data between two or more devices. For this purpose, the data is located on devices that are connected to each other directly or through a file-sharing network. Despite its bad reputation, filesharing also has many legal uses.
Technical and legal aspects of filesharing: The term filesharing is relatively vague and refers to numerous different forms of data exchange. The average user often first encountered the term filesharing in connection with file-sharing networks that aimed to trade music, movies, software and other types of data. Napster, eDonkey or KaZaA are early examples of this. The poor public image of file sharing, which is often equated with illegal activities by inexperienced users, also dates from this time.
In addition to these early days of file sharing, which relied on peer-to-peer (P2P) technology (i.e., the direct connection of two users via a file-sharing network), there are now numerous other variants:
1. one-click hosters
Here, file sharing works on the principle of uploading a file to a server, which can then be downloaded by any number of other users. For this purpose, the uploader passes on a link, which only he receives, to the target group. The advantages over P2P networks are the high transfer speed due to the provision of servers and the anonymity of the downloaders. However, to download files at an acceptable speed, a paid account with the selected one-click hoster is required. Moreover, these services are not suitable for long-term data storage.
Users connect via a specific server. This server coordinates searches, uploads and downloads. The server itself does not provide any data for download, but is only used for communication between users. The disadvantage of this technology is the high dependency on the server: In case of technical problems such as a server failure, the file sharing service is also unavailable. Furthermore, not all users of the entire network can access all data together, since different servers divide the users among themselves.
The last-mentioned disadvantage in the previous section does not apply to this variant of P2P file sharing. All the communication and management to maintain a file-sharing network now takes place directly on the users' devices. However, this does not result in a higher or even ufilenreasonable consumption of resources on the users' computers to too great an extent. The disadvantage of this technology is nevertheless the increased effort below the peers and the susceptibility to attacks from outside, since private devices do not have the same security standard as servers.
3. streaming via P2P
The linear nature of audio and video data ensures that these data types are ideally suited for streaming. Various services are now relying on P2P technology, and thus file sharing, for data sharing. A popular and absolutely legal example is Zattoo, which uses file-sharing to transmit TV content below the subscribers in conjunction with a central server. Technically, the protocol for data transfer is similar to the popular file-sharing software Bittorrent or the Bittorrent network.
In the age of cloud computing, file sharing is also frequently used in companies for the provision of data.
File sharing in companies
Via communication tools such as Slack or applications such as Skype, data exchange via file sharing has also become popular in companies. It replaces the often rigid use of e-mails. Individual users make files available for this purpose in channels in which, for example, an entire work group is active, which can then be downloaded by other users. The servers on which the files are stored are either provided by the file-sharing software provider - which can be a security risk - or the data is stored in-house.
Collaboration in real time on joint projects can also, in principle, be described as file sharing: If several people are working on a document, each participant automatically receives the latest version. Strictly speaking, files are shared in this scenario as well, thus fulfilling the core of file sharing. In practical terms, however, this activity is not called file sharing. Outsourcing critical data to external service providers for the purpose of file sharing is not practiced in practically any company, as the security risk is too high.
Technical aspects of file sharing The speed of data exchange in file sharing is always limited by the Internet connection of the participants. The person who uploads a file simultaneously provides the maximum download speed for the recipient of the file. This is only not the case if a file is distributed to other people via a server. Their upload speeds usually exceed the download of the recipients without any problems.
Dangers of file sharing Basically, the recipient of a file that is distributed via file sharing only gets to see certain meta-data in advance. This includes the file name, the file extension (which can, however, be masked) and other information such as the author, in the case of music pieces the length of the song or, in the case of video content, information such as the duration of the video or the video codec used. However, the most relevant information - the actual file content - remains hidden until the file is preserved. Exceptions exist only in files that can be partially viewed without transferring the complete file (such as numerous video formats).
This poses a significant risk in terms of file sharing security. When sharing files from an anonymous or unknown source, there is always the danger that a .docx document is actually hiding an executable .exe file with dangerous content. In the early days of private file sharing, the networks mentioned at the beginning were also reloading points for malware of all kinds that was accidentally downloaded. The source of this danger may have shifted today, but it is still acute. File sharing with unknown users or from anonymous sources should therefore only be carried out with the utmost caution.
Legal aspects of file sharing The distribution of freely available data is always risk-free. Examples include self-created documents (images, videos, text, PDF files and more) or freely available software. Not allowed - neither in a private context nor as an employee of a company - are downloads and uploads of paid programs, copyrighted material and similar data.
In Germany, only the upload or provision of data in P2P networks is subject to criminal prosecution. Although downloading is also not permitted, it is not prosecuted by the authorities. As always, ignorance does not protect against harm: users of P2P streaming platforms offer movies to other users - albeit often without their knowledge. In this context, there have already been frequent warnings and legal disputes.