What are the laws? What are the risks? You asked, we answered.
Two of the most common questions we receive are: is torrenting safe? And, is torrenting legal?
There's a lot of confusion around this issue, so we're here to set the record straight.
In this post, we'll talk in detail about the risks of torrenting. But let’s first address whether torrenting is illegal.
Is Torrenting Illegal?
In short, torrenting itself is legal.
However, some of the files that people torrent are illegal.
For instance, using a torrent to download a free or public domain file, like a Linux distribution, is perfectly fine.
But a large portion of torrenting traffic is actually related to copyrighted content, like movies or music. "Seeding" (uploading) and "leeching" (downloading) this type of content is almost always illegal.
Many jurisdictions consider uploading the content to be the most serious crime, but here's the thing: you also "seed" torrents while you download them. So, claiming you only downloaded the file isn't a "get out of jail free" card.
That being said, we want to reiterate that torrenting technology itself is legal. Unfortunately, many people want to associate all torrenting with copyrighted content, but this simply isn't the case.
Food for Thought: Some would argue that piracy undercuts the efforts of those producing the content we all enjoy. And that you should respect copyright and, in doing so, support content producers.
You can read more about this topic in our article Does Torrenting Piracy Hurt the Entertainment Industry?
Torrenting Copyright Material: What Can Happen?
Torrenting pirated copyright material, whether intentionally or accidentally (hey, it can happen to anyone), can have consequences.
These consequences can include:
- your ISP issuing you a warning
- your ISP cutting off your service (usually after multiple warnings, for example, “three strikes” in some countries)
- lawyers sending letters on behalf of copyright owners demanding monetary compensation from you (sometimes referred to as “copyright trolls”).
- industry associations & their lawyers dragging you into lawsuits (although this is rare)
While it is true that following the techniques below for safe torrenting will maximize your safety and anonymity while torrenting – making it difficult, almost impossible, for anyone to uncover your torrenting – your safest bet is to steer clear of the pirated stuff.
Torrenting Risks & Dangers
OK, so now that we know torrenting itself is legal and it depends on what you download, let’s look at the risks & dangers of downloading torrents to determine whether torrenting is safe or not.
Torrent Monitoring by Snoops
If you don't take steps to hide your IP address, it's easy for snoops to monitor your torrenting activities.
That's because, like all internet activities, download and sharing torrents involves the interaction of IP addresses.
Not only is your IP address used to connect you to other members of the torrent "swarm", which includes everyone who's uploading or download the file, your IP address can be seen by the other users. And it can be used to connect your torrenting activities to your IP address, and thus to your real identity.
So, all a snoop has to do to monitor your torrenting is join the swarm. These "trolls" then use IP addresses to threaten torrenters with fines, legal action, or warnings from your ISP.
- Read more: Torrenting without a VPN
Use a VPN to Hide Your IP Address
However, if you use a VPN for torrenting the peers you connect with in the swarm will only be able to “see” the VPN's IP address, not your own.
This greatly reduces, if not eliminates, the ability for snoops to monitor your torrenting activity.
And keep in mind that using a VPN is not illegal, nor an admission of guilt.
Wanting to keep your torrent downloading habits private does not automatically mean that you are doing something illegal or wrong. Not at all.
For example, some people may be downloading 100% legal torrents about subjects that they would rather keep private, such as those relating to health or medical conditions, financial matters, erotica, or other personal information that is nobody else’s business.
Other people use VPNs for everything they do online, to protect themselves from spying and other privacy invasions by big tech companies or their government.
By the way, using a VPN while torrenting will address other torrenting safety concerns too.
Our favorite VPN for torrenting is PIA VPN. Its security features will greatly increase your safety when torrenting, and it's pretty cheap, at just a couple bucks per month. We would not recommend torrenting without it (or a similar service).
Speed Throttling by your ISP
It's not just laws and monitoring that you have to worry about. Many ISPs don't like torrenting simply because of the large amount of data that's involved.
If your ISP detects that you're downloading torrents, they may throttle (slow down) your connection, also known as traffic shaping.
Of course, the more you torrent, the more interested your ISP will become in what exactly you're downloading. And this brings us right back to the monitoring risks, which apply not just to third-party snoops but your internet service provider as well.
Fortunately, a VPN not only hides your IP address, it encrypts your connection too. In other words, even your ISP won't be able to see exactly what you're downloading (or uploading).
Malware-Infected and Fake Torrents
Unfortunately, torrents are a fertile ground for the circulation of viruses, worms, Trojans, rootkits and other malware that may do damage to your devices. This is especially true for torrents that contain some kind of executable, like a game or software.
It's not uncommon for malicious parties to spread this malware through torrents with popular or enticing filenames, like the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
You should always use an anti-malware app to rigorously scan the contents of torrent payloads before handling them. This is true even if you use a VPN.
Learn more in our article about How to Avoid Getting a Virus From a Torrent.
In addition, some torrents are fake.
You download the torrent, but it doesn't contain the file you thought it did.
Some fake torrents occur by accident, when the creator simply mislabels the file, but they're usually created intentionally as a form of trolling.
While fake torrents do not pose the same kind of risk as malware-infected ones, they do result in wasted time, effort, and bandwidth.
Hopefully we've answered all your questions, but here's the tl;dr just in case:
1. Is torrenting safe?
- Kind of. There are some dangers & risks but using a good VPN makes torrenting safe
2. Is torrenting illegal?
- No, torrenting technology is perfectly legal. But it depends what you use the technology to download with it. Downloading pirated copyright material carries significant risks. Again, a good VPN will protect you, even if you accidentally download something you shouldn’t.