A Complete Guide to Torrenting
Hang around the internet long enough and you’re sure to run into the term torrenting. Torrent or Bit-Torrent can be a big temptation, particularly if you’re on a budget and don’t have the cash to buy all the latest movies and music. But is torrenting legal? Are you going to get yourself into trouble? We’ve got all you need to know about torrenting right here.
What Is Torrenting?
Let’s start with the very basics, what exactly is torrenting? You’re certainly familiar with downloading and probably do it all the time. If you download a file your computer connects to wherever that file is stored (maybe your Google Drive, or a website) and makes a copy of it. Simple, right? Well, torrenting is kind of just a more complicated version of that.
With torrenting, there’s no central place where a file is stored. Instead, people use a special software that connects them to what we call a peer-to-peer network. Think of this as a net of computers, or even just a group of friends. All of those computers contain a copy of the file you want. When you download a torrent the file that you’re downloading comes from the computers of all the other people on that network, a little bit here, a little bit there. It’s kind of like if you were building a car and all your other friends owned junkyards. You’d get a bumper from Jim, a couple of tyres from Bill, a steering wheel from Jack, and so on.
Your computer will download the file from all those other people and put it together into one file. And then comes a tricky part. You could, of course, switch off your torrenting software now that you have what you need. However, once a file is downloaded, that torrenting software then automatically switches to upload mode, meaning that you are now one of the people on the network. So when someone else connects and downloads that torrent file that you have you’ll be donating part of it too. You’ve bought your own junkyard.
You don’t HAVE to participate in the upload process, but most software switches uploads on automatically. And in the torrenting community, it’s considered rude to download and run. If you’re part of a torrenting community (a forum, a special website) and you don’t leave that torrenting software switched on to share the files (known as “seeding” a file) with others, you might find yourself banned.
How Do I Torrent?
In order to torrent something, you’ll need three things: a source, some software, and a destination. The destination is easy, that’s just your home computer. As for software (also known as a torrent “client”), there are plenty of free options around, uTorrent, Vuze, BitLord, BitTorrent, the list is a long one. Your source will be a website, perhaps a private one where you need a membership, perhaps a public one, where you can find the files you want to download. Piratebay is the most popular torrenting source site, but there are many others, some more reputable than others.
Essentially, you download your software, find the file you want to download on your source site, download a connection for that file (basically a map that will tell your software where to look to find pieces of the file) from your source site, open that connection in your software, and then wait. It’s not particularly complicated, and major torrent software will walk you through the process.
But Why Torrent?
The advantage of torrenting is that because there’s no one central storage place (like a website or a Google Drive account to download from) it’s far harder for authorities to stop the downloading. Instead of taking down one server, they have to track down potentially hundreds of people who are all letting others download a piece of a file. Plus, the overhead costs of torrenting are low. No one has to pay a monthly fee for storage space so that files can be downloaded since everyone’s computer is acting as storage.
As a consumer, the advantages of torrenting are pretty simple. It’s free. Most torrenting involves new movies, new music, or the latest TV shows, all of which you can download for zero bucks. Absolutely nothing. Sound too good to be true? Then keep reading…
Is Torrenting Legal?
And here is where we run into difficulties. The surprising answer to the above question is yes, torrenting itself is perfectly legal. But there’s a catch. Downloading and/or distributing copyrighted material IS illegal. Should you download a file that’s subject to copyright you’re infringing on the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act of 1988, as well as the Digital Economy Act of 2010.
Essentially, this means that if you’re using torrenting to get material that isn’t copyrighted (perhaps a track from an album your friend is working on, or a book that’s old enough to no longer be copyrighted) or where the copyright holder has agreed to their product being torrented (as with some kinds of software such as Linux) you’re absolutely fine. Use torrenting to get something that IS copyrighted (the latest Hollywood blockbuster, the new Drake album), and you’re breaking the law.
In addition to this, all the UK’s major ISPs (Internet Service Providers, the company where you get your internet) have banned torrenting, so you’ll be in violation of their terms of service. And the law requires that ISPs provide information about customers they find torrenting to the authorities.
The UK has some of the strictest cyber-crime laws in the world. The government works with ISPs to block access to major filesharing sites (like Piratebay), making torrenting even more difficult for UK citizens.
What Kind of Punishment are We Talking About?
Should you be caught torrenting then the initial move on the part of the ISP is to send you a “cease and desist” letter. This tells you to stop what you’re doing and will probably also contain some kind of fine. Fines can be up to £50,000. Should you ignore this letter or not pay the fine, you will be taken to court, where costs can rise even higher. In addition, you may find that your internet service contract is cancelled, and that you find it difficult to sign a contract with a new internet company.
These punishments are for simply file sharing. Punishments that involve sharing files of a criminal nature (child pornography, for example) are much stronger.
Is Torrenting Safe?
There is another question here though. Let’s say that you’re not torrenting copyrighted material. You’re using a torrent to get a book that is old and has no copyright attached to it. Legally, you’re in the clear. But aside from the legal question, is what you’re doing safe?
Torrenting is a lot like taking drugs. You might take cocaine a hundred times and be perfectly fine. You might take it once and not be. Because you have no way of checking the file that you’re downloading before you download it, you don’t know if it contains a virus, malware, or even if it’s a completely different movie or album than the title describes. And using torrenting software opens up a connection between your computer and those of many others, increasing the chances of “infection.”
There is a risk to torrenting. However, if you use well-regarded torrenting sites (such as Piratebay), read other users reviews of a torrent before downloading, and have decent anti-virus software on your computer, then that risk can be minimized.
The VPN Solution
People who are looking to torrent generally use a VPN. A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a way of protecting yourself against problems when torrenting. Instead of your computer connecting directly to another computer, or directly to your torrenting network, or even directly to a website, a VPN puts a buffer in the way. Your computer connects only directly to the VPN server, and that server will then connect to other computers, your torrenting network, or the internet.
There are a couple of reasons why people do this. Firstly, a VPN can help keep your identity private. A VPN makes it difficult (NOT impossible) to trace your IP address, meaning that authorities and ISPs may not be able to see that you’re torrenting (they’ll only see the address of the VPN server). Secondly, a VPN can make it look as though you’re in a different location. If your UK internet provider has blocked Piratebay, you can use a VPN to pretend you’re in France or the US or somewhere else, and thus be allowed access to Piratebay.
It’s important to note here that we cannot guarantee your legal safety even if you do choose to use a VPN. But if you’re going to torrent in the UK, a VPN is a must and it certainly decreases the risk. Not all VPNs are created equal, and it might be best to avoid some of the free VPN services out there. If you want a VPN to use for torrenting there are a few things you should be looking for:
- A VPN that has a “kill switch” (meaning that if your connection to the VPN server is interrupted the programme automatically disconnects you from the internet so that your real IP address is never revealed)
- A VPN that has a “no logging” policy (meaning that it keeps no customer activity records that may later be given over to the authorities)
- A VPN that is NOT based in a country where authorities have the right to demand customer activity records (so not one based in the UK, for example, where the police are legally allowed to take company records)
Again though, none of this is an absolute guarantee. You will still be taking a risk!
Other Risk-Minimizing Alternatives
VPNs are by far the biggest solution to most people’s torrenting problems. But there are a couple of other solutions that are occasionally used to minimize torrenting risks:
- Tor: Tor is kind of like a VPN in that it attempts to block people from knowing your real location. Your computer will connect through several other computers or servers before actually connecting to whatever it is you’re looking for. However, using Tor is slow (meaning torrent downloads take forever), and connecting to Tor is likely to arouse suspicion at your internet company (since it’s well known to be used for criminal activities), meaning you might get your contract cancelled…
- Peerblock: Peerblock is an app and it works by keeping track of people/companies that try to keep track of you. It spies on the spies if you will. It will then block your computer from being visible to these spies (internet companies, the authorities, etc). The problem here is that Peerblock is expensive, and it’s not 100% foolproof either, so there’s still the chance that someone is watching you.
Usenet and Streaming
Because of the risks of torrenting, it is becoming less popular. These days, many people use other alternatives to get the files that they want. Usenet and streaming are both viable alternatives to torrenting.
There are plenty of Usenet providers, but all are paid. You pay a monthly fee and in return, you get to download files more safely. These files are stored on a central server, so you’re never connecting with anyone else’s computer. Connections are encrypted, making it difficult for authorities to see what you’re downloading, and many Usenet servers also have in-built VPNs. And since you’re not torrenting you’re not uploading a file once you’ve downloaded it, meaning the legal risk is lower (you’re not distributing copyright material since you’re not passing it along to anyone else, you’re only downloading it, still illegal but a smaller crime). Usenet connections tend to be fast too, so you get that file in no time. Yes, it’s still technically illegal, yes, you have to pay, but you’re running less of a risk with a Usenet provider than by torrenting.
The majority of people these days choose to stream their media (watch it directly online) rather than download it. You go to a website, click play on a video, and watch whatever you like. Netflix, for example, is a paid, legal streaming service. However, many other sites are free and are… not legal. Streaming IS illegal in the UK.
However, the risks of streaming are far lower than those of torrenting. You’re not actually downloading anything, meaning that it’s far harder to track down your IP address. The main risk of streaming is that many ISPs track customer usage, and if they see that you’re streaming pirated material you could get into trouble. A decent VPN should stop this from happening, however.
If you do choose to torrent there’s no way to 100% protect yourself. But there are some things that you can do to minimize your risks:
- Understand that you ARE taking a risk and you ARE breaking the law
- Use a decent VPN
- Choose reputable torrent sites such as Piratebay to decrease the chances of getting fake files and viruses
- Avoid downloading freshly released material, wait at least 60 days (recent big releases are far more likely to be spied on and prosecuted)
- Read the comments below any torrent you’re thinking of downloading to see if other users have had problems with it
- Use a good anti-virus on your computer
- If you do receive a cease and desist letter delete all your torrents, pay your fine, and seriously consider giving up torrenting since you’re more likely to be watched and caught a second time
Is Torrenting Really Worth the Risk?
There’s no way to really get around the fact that for the most part anything you torrent will be done so illegally. Whether that’s worth the risk to you is really a personal decision. The potential fines are high, and the number of pirates being caught in the UK is also high. Plus, torrenting is getting more and more difficult in the United Kingdom as well. With the rise of more affordable popular internet streaming sites the need for torrenting is dropping. But if you decide that you want to take the risk of torrenting media, then that’s really up to you…