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Is Torrenting In The US Safe?

Is Torrenting In The US Safe?

Updated: 08-12-2021

Torrenting is a popular method of distributing files through a decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) network. In the United States, you can safely visit torrent sites and download torrents, but you need to consider some legal aspects before doing that.

Although torrenting is considered legal, you may land in trouble if you access, host, or distribute copyrighted material.

Copyrighted material may include but is not limited to movies, music, TV shows, and applications. Security threats, lawsuits, and ISP blocks are consequences of sharing or downloading unsanctioned copyrighted material.

Even if you access non-copyrighted material, the activity of torrenting alone could attract attention from authorities and your ISP.

This article explores the legality of torrenting in the US, the kind of content subject to copyright, the problems you may encounter when accessing copyrighted material and how to protect yourself while torrenting.

Here's more of what is to come:

  • What is torrenting?
  • Why is torrenting considered dangerous?
  • What happens if you are caught torrenting?
  • Why you need a VPN for US torrenting?
  • How VPNs protect you while torrenting?

What Is Torrenting?

There's a big difference between accessing files from the internet and torrenting. While normal downloading requires pulling an entire file from one source, torrenting uses a slightly different approach. Torrenting grabs small pieces of the file from multiple computers across the globe and assembles them into one full file.

This decentralization of servers makes it difficult to shut down any host computer involved in sharing copyrighted material. Although some people associate torrenting with illegal or criminal activity, there are legitimate reasons for torrenting. One such reason is that torrenting is much faster than normal downloading and does not overburden the servers.

It's only that torrenting is synonymous with copyright violations, but that does not change the fact that it is legal. Examples of legal reasons for torrenting include:

  • Artists sharing uncopyrighted video and music files to a broader audience and for exposure.
  • A secure way to synchronize files between computers because it has no centralized server with storage space limitations.
  • Some gaming companies use BitTorrent clients to upload game updates, reduce bandwidth costs, offer fast download speeds.

How It Works

Torrenting, the most popular P2P file-sharing method, requires a torrent manager software connecting with the BitTorrent network. The software works with popular Operating Systems and can be downloaded for free from the internet.

To download a file from a torrent site, you need to find the magnet link or torrent file (.torrent), which contains information regarding computers that are part of the P2P file sharing process. Also, you'll need to have installed BitTorrent software on your device to open the torrent file or magnet link successfully.

The BitTorrent software will, in turn, scan the magnet link or torrent file and find locations of seeders actively sharing the corresponding file.

After that, it will connect to a list of defined trackers containing the IP addresses of peers. The trackers will then forward the IP addresses of all devices in a swarm to ensure that they're connected. The download begins after all peers are connected, but you'll also be uploading bits of the downloaded file to other users.

 

Where To Find Torrents

You can find torrents in popular websites like The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents. However, the sites mentioned always receive Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices for sharing pirated content. For this reason, Kickass Torrents was shut down while the Pirate Bay is still functional despite facing multiple DMCA takedown notices.

 

Torrenting Terminologies

To familiarize yourself with torrenting, here are some common terminologies you should know about:

Peers are people downloading or uploading the same file. A peer can download files from other users or upload files to other users simultaneously.

Swarm is a group of people downloading or uploading the same torrent file.

Seeders are people who own a torrent file and are actively sharing it with others/peers.

Tracker coordinates peer-to-peer connections in a swarm but does not host any file.

Each peer acts as a mini-server, reducing the overall network load. The only disadvantage of this method is it lets you download and upload files simultaneously, which can strain your internet connection if you're running on limited bandwidth. This is the reason most torrent downloads begin a little bit slower but speed up along the way.

Why Torrenting Is Considered Dangerous

Most of the widely used torrent management software are considered legal and safe to use. But this does not protect users from downloading malicious files because the applications do not have a mechanism to warn users beforehand.

Popular torrent trackers, such as ThePirateBay, often operate in a legal grey area because it contributes to digital piracy and may host malware. This has resulted in heavy legal scrutiny from content creators and distributors who argue that trackers breach copyright laws.

In their defense, these trackers argue that they do not host any copyrighted material on their servers but only share information already on the internet.

The blame then shifts to torrent clients who host torrent files on their personal computers. Legally, seeders and peers play the same role of sharing copyrighted material without permission and may face legal charges for the same.

 

Security Risks of Torrenting

When compared to regular downloads, the risks of torrenting are fewer. This is because you can easily download a malicious file from a centralized server compared to a P2P network. In addition, one advantage of downloading content from P2P networks is that people usually leave comments indicating whether a torrent works or not. Below are some torrenting risks you should be aware of:

Viruses and Malware

Still, some peers with malicious intent may change torrent metadata and effectively corrupt the corresponding file. For this reason, watch out for executable (.exe) or batch files (.bat) because these scripts usually contain malware. Also, it's advisable to stay away from new uploaders or torrent files with no reviews or comments if you don't want to fall victim to cybercriminals.

Only download a torrent file with many seeders and great reviews from users. Alternatively, you can install a premium antivirus program or use a built-in firewall capable of detecting and blocking potential risks.

Spyware

Spyware is software that spies on a victim with the intent to obtain sensitive information and forward it to a third party without the victim's knowledge or consent. The sensitive information includes but is not limited to browsing history, IP address, login details, and banking information.

Spyware is usually embedded on free software available on BitTorrent clients. Hackers will most likely crack legitimate paid software, modify, and share it for free on torrent websites. For this reason, avoid free software at all costs and read reviews on any file you want to download on BitTorrent.

Adware

Adware is a form of malware that displays annoying ads as pop-ups whenever you visit a website. Although adware does not pose a dangerous threat to your device, it uses your device resources and may eventually slow down the computer's performance and cause system instability.

Some developers may hide adware in movies, and TV shows you download from BitTorrent clients. Note that adware can be dangerous if mixed with spyware.

What Happens if You Are Caught Torrenting?

As earlier discussed, downloading copyrighted material is illegal and may land you in trouble. For this reason, you should be careful while downloading torrents because your IP address is visible to other peers.

To confirm this, initiate a torrent download and click on the 'More Info' section. You'll see a list of IP addresses of every device you're downloading data from and uploading to.

Some peers are copyright trolls who record IP addresses of people downloading torrents and pass them to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Copyright trolls are individuals hired by music labels or movie production companies to enforce copyright laws. Some ISPs also monitor public torrent trackers which contain IP addresses of peers in a swarm.

The ISPs can liaise with authorities, which may land you in trouble, especially if you do not mask your IP address. If your ISP receives two or more DMCA notices linked to your real IP address, they'll have no option but send you a warning. Repeat offenders may even be blocked or disconnected from the internet by their ISP.

Alternatively, the ISP may decide to hand your account information to the copyright holder. When this happens, the copyright holder will identify the IP address owner and may decide to push for criminal prosecution. As a general rule of thumb, it's advisable to seek legal counsel if you receive a subpoena for copyright infringement.

In the US, you can be jailed for up to five years or pay a fine of up to $150,000 if found sharing or downloading copyrighted material. The copyright owner can also file a lawsuit against you, and you'll be liable for the legal fees and damages.

The good news is that most copyright infringement lawsuits do not result in a criminal conviction and are settled out of court, but there's no guarantee of that happening. Also, filing lawsuits is often expensive, time-consuming, and usually not profitable to the copyright holder.

In recent years, copyright holders have opted for speculative invoicing. Here's how speculative invoicing works.

The copyright holders transfer their intellectual property rights to opportunistic law firms. In return, these opportunistic law firms earn a living by threatening copyright offenders with huge legal fees if they don't pay an out-of-court settlement for their offenses.

They usually don't file lawsuits against those who don't pay the out-of-court settlement, but even if they do, most cases get dismissed. In the US, copyright infringement is treated as a 'civil' offense; there's no possibility of going to jail if a copyright holder opens a case against a torrent client, but the client may lose lots of money by paying fines and legal fees. Come to think of it; you're better off accessing copyrighted materials legally.

Why You Need a VPN for US Torrenting?

Torrenting without a VPN is like swimming in a lake full of alligators; you might get bitten at any moment. Firstly, your ISP will be able to see everything you do online, from the sites you visit and the content you download.

In certain countries, ISPs are required by law to share their users' data with the government and intellectual property owners. For example, suppose you access copyrighted material on torrenting sites, which is usually the case for most torrent users. In that case, you might have to pay huge fines or risk being cut off from the internet by your ISP.

These are usually the consequences of not using a VPN when torrenting.

If you're concerned about your online privacy while torrenting, it is essential to use a VPN. There are various VPN providers available, and some are better suited to handle torrenting than others. Below are a few factors to consider when selecting a VPN service to use while torrenting:

Strict No Log Policy

A reliable VPN provider doesn't store any user logs. These are files that contain information on the websites you visit, your personal data, the files you access on the internet, and more. On the contrary, such VPN providers can only store activity logs that help them improve on their service provision, such as how users interact with their products.

If you're connected to a VPN service with a no-log policy, you can rest assured that third parties won't track your online activity. Even when authorities compel the VPN provider to release their logs, there'll be no user logs stored on the VPN server, and for that reason, your torrenting activity remains private.

Has a Kill Switch

A kill switch is a VPN feature that shuts down internet connectivity on a device when the VPN connection drops. This protects you from Domain Name System (DNS), and WebRTC Internet Protocol (IP) leaks or leaking your DNS information and IP address even when connected to a VPN. You can either use the system-level kill switch that disconnects the whole device from the internet or the application-level kill switch to disconnect torrenting apps from the internet when the VPN connection is lost.

Geographical Location

A VPN provider can claim to have a no-logs policy but has servers in a country that legally requires logging user data. Therefore, you cannot trust such a provider to keep your data safe. For this reason, opt for a VPN provider with servers in countries that don't have harsh internet regulations.

Download Speeds

There's nothing as frustrating as slow downloads; you need to select a VPN service that guarantees your online privacy but won't compromise the connection speeds.

For better speeds, choose a VPN server close to you. This is because data packets travel a small distance before reaching the VPN server. A VPN server far from your physical location will slow down the overall performance, and torrents may take longer to download because data packets will be traveling over a longer distance.

Here are some of the main reasons you need a VPN while torrenting in the US:

To Protect Yourself From Copyright Trolls

Copyright trolls locate torrent users who share or download copyrighted material using their IP addresses and then pursue them on behalf of copyright holders. Usually, they use scare tactics and intimidation to make torrent users pay out-of-court settlements.

Instead, the best way to protect yourself from copyright trolls is by connecting to a VPN while torrenting. A VPN will mask your original IP address and the copyright trolls will only see the fake IP address assigned to you by a VPN server, making it virtually impossible for them to track you in person.

To Avoid ISP Penalties

ISPs might not be interested in what sites you access but are more concerned about the bandwidth you consume. Given that torrenting consumes a lot of bandwidth, they will easily notice when you're connected to a torrent site from the amount of bandwidth you consume, prompting them to check your online traffic, specifically BitTorrent.

ISPs don't like torrenting because it generates constant uploads and download streams, consuming a lot of bandwidth that costs them lots of money. To avoid this, they use tactics such as bandwidth throttling to prevent their customers from torrenting. Bandwidth throttling is when your ISP intentionally slows down your internet connection or lowers your maximum upload and download speeds.

For instance, if you were on a 300Mbps plan per month, the ISP might implement a 100Mbps cap on your bandwidth. Alternatively, your ISP might decide to use the 'single-sided throttle' approach that cuts your upload speeds but retains your download speed. 

Worse still, they can block torrent traffic by banning port ranges corresponding to popular torrent clients or specific protocols used in P2P networks. But this is not something you need to worry about if you're located in the US because torrenting is legal.

 

How ISPs Know You're Torrenting

Most ISPs detect torrenting activity by checking the IP address and port number on your data packets. However, nowadays, many applications that claim to block ISPs from viewing user's BitTorrent traffic are not very reliable because ISPs have opted for more robust methods like Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) that can bypass basic BitTorrent encryption. DPI is a form of packet filtering that evaluates the contents of a packet sent over a computer network. 

The best way to avoid ISP throttling while torrenting is by using a VPN. A VPN reroutes all your online traffic to a remote VPN server in a location of your choice and masks your real IP address. For this reason, ISPs won't see what you do online, and you can continue torrenting safely.

How VPNs Protect You While Torrenting?

VPNs add an extra layer of anonymity, making it virtually impossible for ISPs, the government, or copyright trolls to track what you do online. They also assign you a fake IP address and hide your real IP address from the outside world. For example, when downloading files from a BitTorrent client, peers can only see the fake IP address but not your real one.

A VPN also encrypts your internet traffic before it leaves your device and reroutes it through a secure VPN channel. Your ISP can't encrypt such traffic and won't even know where it is headed. That's why it is vital to opt for reputable VPN services that use the best encryption standards designed for online privacy and anonymity.

Avoid free VPNs at all costs because they log your user data, have bandwidth caps, and are prone to DNS and WebRTC IP leaks. In addition, most of them actually sell users' data to the highest bidder and are not fast enough to tolerate torrenting.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is the Difference Between Public and Private Trackers?

Trackers act like search engines and provide file indexing services on a BitTorrent network. Public trackers such as ThePirateBay and Demonoid do not require logging in or any sort of authentication and allow anyone to upload files. On the other hand, private trackers require authentication and their uploads are moderated.

Can You Be Jailed for Torrenting In the US?

In the US, torrenting activity and copyright infringement lawsuits are regarded as civil suits and not criminal suits. For this reason, you cannot be jailed for torrenting but may be required to pay heavy fines.

What Are the Risks Associated With Torrenting?

Downloading torrent files via a public tracker is risky because some users may upload malicious files to infect your computer. Also, you may face legal action if you download or share copyrighted material on a P2P network.

How Can You Protect Your Privacy While Torrenting?

The best way to protect your privacy while torrenting is by using a VPN. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and masks your IP address, making it difficult for anyone to know what you do online.

Torrenting is usually considered suspicious behavior by authorities and ISPs in many countries, including the US. Even though it's not illegal, you may be sued or face serious fines if you download or share copyrighted materials on P2P networks. Torrenting comes with many risks; put your privacy and security first by connecting to a VPN service.

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