More than a decade since the heyday of Napster shareware, peer-to-peer file distribution remains a key tool for Internet users exchanging music and movie files online. The leading program in Japan is Winny, an application distributed free of charge since May 2002 by former University of Tokyo researcher Isamu Kaneko.

While Napster creator Shawn Fanning was hit with a series of lawsuits and taken to civil court by the music industry, Kaneko has faced criminal charges for allegedly encouraging Winny users to commit copyright infringement. The software also has been a reason for countless cases of data leaks, varying from private information on personal computers to internal government documents.

Winny most recently made headlines earlier this month, but this time for a controversial ruling by the Osaka High Court overturning a lower court judgment and acquitting Kaneko.

Following are questions and answers regarding Japan’s most popular peer-to-peer program and the impact it is having on the country’s online community:

What is Winny?

Winny is a file-sharing program that enables users to connect without using a central server.

The software makes it possible for computers connected to the Internet to exchange any digital data, including music, movies, computer software and other files.

Court documents say Kaneko has been interested in computers since he was in elementary school and as a researcher at the University of Tokyo he developed a variety of programs.

Napster, a program developed in the 1990s, kicked off the peer-to-peer file-sharing movement in the United States. But in Japan, it was Winny that started the ball rolling.

“There were file-sharing software programs prior to Winny, but Winny made its debut with a decentralized framework at a time when the crackdown on copyright infringement was beginning,” said Toshinao Sasaki, a noted journalist and author of “The Study Guide of the Internet Industry.”

It was automatic after that, as the program spread like a virus. The vast amount of shared files on the network created a synergistic effect that attracted thousands of new users, making Winny the standard in Japan.

How many people download files through Winny?

A survey of 20,350 people released by the Association of Copyright for Computer Software in Japan in September 2008 revealed that 10.3 percent of computer users were using file-sharing software, the first time it was more than 10 percent since the survey began in 2002.

It found that 58 percent of file sharers exchange music online, 27.4 percent swap movies, and 21.6 percent use it to download pornography. Of those using peer-to-peer programs, 28.4 percent exchange files using Winny, followed by 18.3 percent who use a program called Limewire.

Approximately 300,000 computers are believed to be sharing files via Winny on any given day.

What was Kaneko accused of doing?

The Kyoto District Court in December 2006 found Kaneko guilty of making Winny available online with the knowledge that it was being used for copyright infringement. The computer whiz was fined ¥1.5 million.

Kaneko, who became the first person in Japan to face charges for creating peer-to-peer software, pleaded not guilty throughout the proceedings. The focus of the trial was on whether the programmer harbored the intention of facilitating Internet piracy, a claim he denied. He said he released Winny as an experiment.

In a rare move, the Osaka High Court earlier this month overturned the lower court ruling and acquitted Kaneko. The presiding judge said the court could not determine whether he encouraged copyright infringement. The prosecutors said Friday they will appeal to the Supreme Court.

What kind of data leaks has Winny caused?

Technically speaking, leaks can’t be blamed on the software itself. The true culprits are viruses, which began infiltrating Winny around 2004. The most famous is the Antinny virus.

The leaks have involved classified data pulled from unprotected computers, including those used by police departments, universities, central and local governments, and even the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. But the biggest leak involved military data taken from the Maritime Self-Defense Force in February 2006. The data included personal information about personnel, cipher-related documents and data combat exercises. The information came from the personal computer of a chief petty officer who was using Winny.

The incident prompted then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe to tell the public “to be on the alert (about the possibility of information leaks), and the best way is not to use Winny.”

What can you do to counter a personal information leak?

Not much once the information is out there in cyberspace.

Digital information is easily copied and will drift indefinitely among the users as long as Winny clients deposit the files on their computers.

As a precautionary measure, the education ministry only recommends disconnecting computers from the Internet and checking them for malicious software.

However, one countermeasure described in “Kensho — Winny Joho Ryushutsu Taisaku” (“Verification — Measures Against Information Leaks on Winny”) is “poisoning.”

According to the book, published by the editors of the computer magazine Ascii, you can deliberately spread large quantities of fake files on Winny bearing the same name as the leaked data. By doing that, end-users seeking the true files will have to dig through all the replicas to get what they want, provided they know what they are looking for. The more replicas out there, the more likely they are to give up, the book said.

What is the government doing to halt data leaks and piracy?

Very little. Statistics released in March 2008 showed that the police have uncovered only 14 cases of copyright infringement on peer-to-peer networks since 2001. A revised law that takes effect in January will ban the downloading of material one knows to be copyrighted, but it doesn’t carry any penalty for violators. Because users of such software are usually untraceable, critics have questioned the effectiveness of the law.

What lies ahead for peer-to-peer networks?

The negative incidents attributed to Winny have highlighted the downside of the technology, but peer-to-peer networking also has had a positive impact. While expressing concern over copyright infringement, the Association of Copyright for Computer Software states on its Web site that the system “is an essential technology for the Internet.” Journalist Sasaki agrees, saying it holds huge potential.

“For example, in a country where an oppressive government controls information, the public can exchange information through a peer-to-peer network without giving up anonymity,” he said. “Communicating without a central server could provide the public with its right to knowledge in such cases.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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