An In-Depth Guide to Torrenting and How to Ensure Your Safety, Security, and Privacy

Torrenting has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as content producers look to take greater control over how their content is shared online. This includes lobbying for new laws to be established that address online sharing, as well as a push for improved enforcement of existing laws.

Since each country has its own laws and regulations regarding sharing content online, the question of, “is torrenting legal?” is a difficult one to answer. There are a lot of varying regulations and grey areas to consider.

In this article, we will look at some of the rules surrounding torrenting, and help you better understand how torrenting may affect you.

What is torrenting?  How does torrenting work?

First, it’s important to understand what torrenting actually is. On a basic level, torrenting is a method of downloading a file like a movie or television series. It’s important to note, however, that torrenting isn’t like downloading a file directly from a webstore. Instead of using a single point for people to download from, torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer file sharing that can use a number of sources to help complete a file download.

The advantage of torrent websites and torrenting is that the file is split up into multiple smaller pieces that can be delivered much more quickly by people that already own the file (called seeders), verses downloading a large file from a single source. Some popular torrents can have hundreds or even thousands of seeders helping send parts of files to users who are downloading the file. In fact, 22% of all upstream traffic on the Internet today can be attributed to torrenting.

While torrenting can be used to download files that are perfectly legitimate and legal, there are many cases where people share copyrighted content which can run afoul of certain copyright law. This is done by providing a magnet link, which people can input into their torrent platform of choice. This connects seeders and hosts with people interested in downloading the file. Once the download is complete, that person can then become a seeder depending on their own settings, and then help others download the same file for themselves.

Is torrenting safe?

One very common question about torrenting is whether it’s actually safe. To be clear, the actual mechanisms of torrenting are safe, and there are perfectly legitimate reasons to torrent and share files, especially if the file is large and is available in the public domain. The challenge with safety as it relates to torrenting comes stems from the people who are distributing the files.

Cyber criminals use torrents as a method of distributing malware to unsuspecting users because it’s open source. This is especially true with very popular torrents, like the new Game of Thrones season, which saw over 400,000 torrents being shared for some episodes. With that kind of popularity and download volume, hackers can target a large number of users with just a few infected files being shared.

So, how can you protect yourself from these kinds of attacks through torrent files?

Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot of due diligence on your part.  First, you should always look at the type of file being shared. So, for example, an audio file should be in an .mp3 format or other standard audio format. Seeing a file with a .exe or .zip extension is a dead giveaway that the torrent may actually be malware rather than the audio file it claims to be.

Using an anti-malware software that allows you to scan files before opening them is another good option. This will help you identify malware before the file is opened and able to distribute itself on your system.

Another great way to keep yourself safe while torrenting is to view the uploader’s history and reviews. Most torrent sites require uploaders to have a profile that other users can rate. New users and/or users with bad ratings should be avoided.

At the end of the day, there’s no way to sugar coat things: torrenting can be very risky. Putting some basic security practices into place can reduce the risk significantly, however.

Is torrenting legal?

Depending on where you live, the answer to this question could be yes,no, or maybe. The challenge related to the legality of torrenting largely stems from the varying laws that are in place around the world, and the confusion that these different laws can cause.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that torrenting itself is not illegal, and there are perfectly legitimate reasons for torrenting that do not run afoul of any laws. The question of legality tends to come up when people are discussing copyrighted materials like television shows, music, and movies.

So to break it down into the most simplistic terms, torrenting itself is not illegal, but the type of content being torrented is what often makes the entire process illegal.

In most countries around the world, pirating copyrighted material is against the law, and the consequences can range from a slap on the wrist to serious fines. Depending on severity and location, some people who torrent may even face jail time.

In several countries, Internet service providers are tasked with monitoring for pirated content being downloaded or shared. The consequences of being caught include having a letter sent to your home, having your Internet speed throttled, getting your service agreement cancelled, and potential legal action.

It’s incredibly rare for individual users to be targeted for legal action, but there are some exceptions to that rule. People who share a large number of torrents to their peers online may become a target for legal action since they aren’t just downloading copyrighted content, but they are also helping to distribute it.

When it comes to the legality of torrenting, it will ultimately come down to the type of content being torrented and the copyright laws where you live. It would be wise to take some time to familiarize yourself with local laws so that you can better understand the legal risks of torrenting.

Streaming vs Torrenting

Streaming and torrenting are 2 ways to enjoy content online. There are some important differences between the two, however. As previously discussed, torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer downloading. Once the download is complete, the files are on your device to enjoy whenever you wish.

Streaming, on the other hand, occurs when you connect to a single streaming service or platform. With streaming, the file is hosted on another server and you simply watch the content instead of downloading a file.

Depending on the jurisdiction, there are many legal differences between streaming and torrenting. Again, this will comes down to the local laws in your country. Also keep in mind that laws can – and often do – change over time. So while streaming may currently be legal where you live, it may not remain that way in the future.

Services like Netflix are a paid form of streaming where things like TV shows and movies have been officially licensed. There is no legal risk to using a service like this. Unofficial streaming providers could pose a legal risk if you choose to use their services, however.

With legal streaming services, the content available is limited. This is due to the licensing agreements in place. Services like Netflix and Hulu can only pay so much money for programming and they must compete with each other to secure programming. What this means is that everything you want to watch is unlikely to be available from a single streaming provider, and you’ll need to sign up for multiple services.

What happens if I get caught torrenting?

The risks of being caught torrenting vary from country to country. There are, however, some basic consequences to be on the lookout for when torrenting that may indicate you’ve been caught in the act.

The first indicator is often some form of contact from your Internet service provider (ISP). They will usually send a letter or email stating that you have been torrenting. In some cases, they may even know which file you were torrenting. This letter usually concludes with a request to stop torrenting.

If you continue, you may find that your Internet connection speeds are adversely affected. Internet service providers don’t appreciate the amount of bandwidth that torrenting takes up on their network.  As such, they try to identify people who are torrenting and place caps on their Internet speeds. This makes downloading torrents incredibly slow. The idea is that since it’ll be so inconvenient to download the files, the behavior will stop.

In some cases, an actual copyright holder may send a letter or initiate legal action against you if you’re caught torrenting or sharing their content. This will usually begin with a settlement offer, and may progress to an actual court case, which can rack up thousands of dollars in fees and fines.  Legal action is rare, but certainly not unheard of. People who share a lot of content are at an increased risk of actually being taken to court for their actions.

Ultimately, if you get caught torrenting, it could affect your ability to enjoy the Internet, and may even put a target on your back for legal action. This is obviously not an ideal outcome, so it’s important to protect yourself.

What are copyright trolls?

One of the biggest risks of getting caught torrenting is becoming the target of a copyright troll. These are copyright holders, or companies hired to represent copyright holders, that try to earn settlements against people who have torrented their content. The methods that they use are why many people refer to them as “trolls.”

These people know that the likelihood of getting a significant judgment against someone who occasionally torrents content is rare. They are also aware that the penalties for this will not amount to much. They use alarming messaging and professionally written letters, however, to try and scare people into settling a case before it goes to court. These letters are often sent through the Internet service provider since copyright trolls often only know the IP address of the person doing the torrenting, but not their actual identity.

The letters sent will often quote the type of content that was downloaded and cite the maximum penalty for copyright violation. This amount can be scary for a lot of people, but in reality, thoe maximum penalties are often reserved for people and/or companies committing commercial-scale copyright infringement as opposed to personal use infringement. Simply put, these letters are meant to scare people and make them act quickly without stopping to think.

In the letter, after quoting the maximum penalty for going to court, copyright trolls will typically offer a reduced settlement amount, which will prevent the case from going to court. In most cases, the copyright troll does not know the name or the address of the offender, and these letters can simply be ignored. This is expected, however. They know that only a fraction of people will pay the settlement fee and, for them, this is a better use of time than actually taking people to court.

This is not to say that a copyright troll will not escalate a case and take someone to court. It has happened in the past and will happen a lot more in the future if laws are changed to further benefit copyright holders. In most cases, the chances that a copyright troll will actually take you to court are minimal. If the letter seems vague and does not include any identifying personal information, you can probably ignore it.  Just keep in mind that you were caught, and need to take action to ensure that you aren’t caught again.

How to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) while torrenting

A VPN is one of the best ways to ensure your online privacy, and torrenting is one activity that can greatly benefit from the use of a VPN.

VPNs connect you to remote servers, and create an encrypted tunnel between you and the remote server. By doing so, the information that’s passed through the tunnel can’t be seen by copyright trolls, Internet service providers, or even law enforcement.

As a result, no one can tell what the data actually is, which means you can torrent and no one will ever know. What’s more, there are no laws against using a VPN in most countries, so you can feel confident that you are protecting your privacy legally and avoiding some of the nasty surprises associated with torrenting without a VPN.

The best VPNs also provide an extra layer of protection thanks to their remote servers. Since you are connecting to a remote server, your IP address is not actually the one making the request to other servers. This means that your IP address is protected, since the remote server’s IP address is actually the one making the request. It’s just one more piece of the security puzzle that makes a VPN a fantastic tool if you want to ensure your privacy online, regardless of what you’re doing.

Ultimately, if you are planning on torrenting, it would be wise to consider using a VPN. The privacy protection from copyright trolls and your Internet service provider will ensure that you enjoy uninterrupted service at full speeds, without the risk of copyright trolls trying to take your money.

Alex Grant
 

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