How To: Safely Share Files Online

Safely Share Files Online

Okay, stop me if you've heard this one. You have a document that you want your co-workers' advice on. You attach said document onto a mass email. The first reply comes back with an edited version of the document. You begin to make changes, but another email comes in, with yet another edited version. Soon you're drowning in a desktop folder full of mismatched documents, all with the same name.

Or maybe you've got a really cool new batch of photos, or a song you just recorded, or a video dying to be shared. You try to attach it to an email, but your account informs you that your file is too big. It seems doomed to languish on your hard drive forever, unviewed and unloved.

If you're looking for a solution to your file sharing woes, don't worry. The internet's got your back.

The following is a list of services that your humble author uses regularly. They all serve very different purposes, so you'll need to find the one best suited to your needs. All three services are tried-and-true, but they're certainly not all that's out there.  If you've got something that you like better --- or something that you really can't stand --- feel free to talk about it in the comments!

(Side note: though peer-to-peer and torrenting clients are indeed ways to share your stuff, discussing the proper use of those services is a very different conversation. Let's save that topic for another time.)

Google Documents

Do you have a Gmail account? Cool. That means you also have Google Docs. If you need a handy place to store your text documents, spreadsheets and PDFs, Google Docs will hook you up. It's got a built-in basic office suite, with lightweight versions of all the programs you know and love from Microsoft Office (or OpenOffice, if you dig open source software). This means that you can edit your documents within your browser without having to download them.

And you're not the only one who can edit your documents. If you set up sharing permissions for other Google users, you and your colleagues can edit documents together in real time. You can chat together in a little side panel about what changes need to be made. You can send a document out to your contacts without ever having to open up your email. You can easily see who was the last user that edited a file. If you're tired of sending multiple versions of presentations and proposals back and forth, Google Docs might be just what you need.

The drawback to Google Docs is, of course, the types of files that can be sent. This service only works for (as the name suggests) documents. Photos, movies and audio files are a no-go. The various file types that are supported have size limits (the largest being 20 MB for spreadsheets). So if all you need a file sharing service for is documents, you won't need to look elsewhere. But if you need to share other types of media, read on.


No joke, Dropbox changed my life. As I use multiple computers on an everyday basis, having access to the same files on each machine is vital. In the days of yore, I depended heavily on my flash drives. I somewhat obsessively backed up my files out of fear of misplacing a drive. There were times that my whole afternoon was screwed up due to having brought along an old version of a file. Then Dropbox came along, and the world seemed like a better place.

Dropbox is an elegant little file sync system. The premise is simple. You install the Dropbox application on as many computers as you fancy. The application creates a folder, which connects to the internet. Anything you save in the folder is not only backed up online, but is also synced with every other computer you use Dropbox on. For example, if I save a document into the Dropbox folder on my laptop, when I open up the Dropbox folder on my desktop, the file will be there. And when I make changes to that file, those changes show up on every computer that I use.

The caveat there is that updates are only made if the computer in question is connected to the internet. But even if you are offline, the files that were most recently synced to your computer are still accessible on the hard drive, so you're never locked out from your files. And if you're not at one of your computers, you can always access your files by logging onto the Dropbox website itself.

So where does file sharing come into this? Dropbox gives you the option to set up a shared folder, which can be accessed by approved Dropbox users. I use the Dropbox shared folder to trade image files with a creative partner of mine. Rather than stuffing as many JPEGs as we can into an email, we just save our newest work to our shared Dropbox folder. What's neat about that is if I'm on my computer when she saves something into the shared folder, a little notification appears on my screen, informing me that there's new stuff to see.

Dropbox gives you 2 GB of storage for free (plus an extra 250 MB for every friend you get to sign up). If you need more space than that, you'll need to sign up for a yearly subscription.


For really big stuff, like videos or software patches or huge zip files, MediaFire is the way to go. You'll see a lot of "free file hosting" services out there, but MediaFire's got a pretty solid reputation. Just upload your stuff to get a download link. Send the link to whoever you need to. That's it. Easy as pie.

One of the cool things about MediaFire is that the folks you're sending the files to don't need an account to access it. Neither do you. If you just plan on using the site once or twice, there's no need to sign up. No fees or sketchy surveys. Just make sure you don't misplace your download links.

But if you do have the need to share a lot of big stuff, or if you just want to save your links for later, signing up for a basic account is free. You can upload files up to 200 MB each, which most folks will find more than sufficient (you can also upgrade to a pro account for a massive 10 GB individual file limit). There's also no limit on how many files you can upload. MediaFire doesn't give you the same editing capabilities as Google Docs or Dropbox, but that won't matter anyway if you're dealing with videos or software.

So, let's hear it. What do you guys use?

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I've used google docs/never drop box, which sounds great.

This is entirely self-serving, but if you're down to try out Dropbox, let me know and I'll send you an invite.

that'd be great... i share files with a business partner in berlin.. so it sounds like it would work well for that?

I use Dropbox everyday :D I <3 it!

what do you use it for... just curious. i know you're young ruben, so no job...

No job. But I got a lot of Homework and I cooperate a lot with my friends in school, so I tell my friends to install it, so we can share files and stuff easily :D And when I'm home I got my stationary computer? (not sure it's called stationary but the opposite of a laptop^^) And when i'm in school I borrow my mom's little laptop (notebook) to write notes and find important information to our project :D That is what I use Dropbox for :D If I want to send something to my smartphone it's also easy with dropbox ^_^

stationary = desktop. i see. yes.. very useful for school projects. and i didn't even think of the smartphone...

Thanks :D

I've always used iDisk for sharing large files with my sister (mostly pics and psds), but I hate it. It's so slow, constantly has problems when uploading or downloading, and uploading/downloading multiple files at the same time almost always leads to errors (which is not fun after 2 hours of processing). The only thing I do like about it is the public folder can be password protected. But it is nowhere near worth the money (I should cancel my email with Mac). Dropbox sounds like the same thing, but less limited. I do hear a lot of good stuff about it, so I guess it's about time to give it a shot. Can you set passwords for the public folders?

MediaFire seems like a good idea for large files. I might try that out if I have to share something big. Thanks. But I'm not a big fan of Google Docs. I don't like the layout of the spreadsheet program. Kind of clunky, and hard to see large sheets.

PS: If you want to get some more storage off me, I'm sending you my email via a message so you can invite me to Dropbox! (I assume you need my email address)

Hmm... I just read an article on how Dropbox will willingly decrypt user files if the feds ask for access. Now, I don't plan to store any illegal documents or anything, but is this standard? Do most online storage places have this in their terms? What if I store a file about jailbreaking a PlayStation or something? Harmless enough, but couldn't Sony subpoena Dropbox for those documents? Again, I don't really plan on using this for anything but pics, but I do get curious of these things...

I believe that's pretty standard for most online services. I'm not an expert on internet privacy laws, but I think in most cases, the government has the right to get access to your files if it's part of a criminal investigation (any lawyers out there want to help me out with this one?). There was actually a post today over at the Dropbox blog about their security policies:

Now, what I'd be interested in knowing is whether or not Dropbox will let you know about any requests made for your stuff. For example, a few months ago, the government asked Twitter for access to direct messages belonging to a few individuals affiliated with WikiLeaks. Twitter gave the users plenty of notice before they complied with the request. They didn't have to tell them what was up, but they did. I was hugely impressed by that. Now, the Dropbox folks seem to be pretty pro-user as well, so it'd be interesting to know how they'd react under similar circumstances.

Regarding Dropbox - Extremely cool software, but a massive security flaw has been identified with it. More information here:

I've been using Dropbox tons... Thanks, Becky.

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