These days, when people hear the word “torrent”, they immediately think of illegal downloads and internet piracy.
The reality is that torrenting is simply a network protocol that can be used for a variety of digital activities. The type of content that you are looking to torrent determines whether your activity is legal or illegal. In fact, certain countries like Canada have special regulations that determine the legality of torrent users.
Read on to learn the basics of the torrent protocol and whether it is safe and legal for you to use at home.
How Does Torrenting Work?
Torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing that has gained popularity in recent years. The protocol is officially known as BitTorrent and first arrived on the scene back in 2001.
Prior to BitTorrent, other forms of P2P networking dominated the internet through services like Limewire and Napster. These services were often slow and unreliable, which paved the way for torrenting to become a more optimal file sharing solution.
When you use a typical website to download a file, such as an image or song, the original object lives on a server and your browser initiates the download through an HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) request.
P2P and BitTorrent rely on a completely different architecture. They use a decentralized structure to connect individual computers where uploads and downloads take place.
With torrenting, large files are broken into many small pieces that are distributed across the internet. When you use a BitTorrent client to download a multimedia object, the program will gather the small pieces from different locations and then merge them together on your local computer.
Safety With Torrenting
Performing any download on the internet comes with a certain amount of risk. You have to trust that the file is coming from a legitimate source who means you no harm. But that’s not always the case.
Online downloads are the one of the major ways in which viruses and malware can be spread across the internet. In the worst-case scenario, a malicious download can infect your hardware and give the attacker access to your private data. Broaden your knowledge about online privacy in our extensive guide.
Since BitTorrent is an open and public transfer protocol, there is no overseeing group that ensures your downloads are safe and legitimate. However, the fact that torrenting pulls data from a wide set of distributed machines does help to verify the authenticity of downloads.
The first obvious way to protect yourself when torrenting is to have a strong virus scanning tool on your computer, especially if you are running the Windows operating system.
Ensure that your virus scan tool is set to check all new downloads and to keep itself updated on a regular basis.
In addition, it’s smart to use a good VPN on your computer before connecting to a BitTorrent client. This way, your network traffic will be routed through a secure IP address as opposed to your public one. Of course you need to be careful when selecting a VPN service, as many of the free options advertised online carry risks of their own. It is always better to invest in a VPN service that charges a monthly fee, because with the introduction of a profit stream from satisfied customers, it will be in their best interest to keep you secured—and therefore satisfied. Check out our reviews of Surfshark or NordVPN to see what a good VPN service looks like. If you’re on a budget, see our list of the best free VPNs too.
There is no central hub for the BitTorrent protocol, which means you have to seek out your own torrenting client and use it to connect to specific trackers.
A tracker is a centralized server that maps where files currently exists and directs your traffic to the appropriate spots. You should stick to only public tracker servers and research their reputation and safety rating before starting any downloads.
Legal Issues With Torrenting
The primary reason why earlier P2P services like Napster and Limewire ultimately failed is due to copyright restrictions and legal issues.
Many of the files being shared on those platforms were songs and videos that had been extracted from CDs or other sources. By sharing the files online, users were circumventing copyright laws and gaining access to the media without paying for it.
Piracy is, of course, still an issue with the torrenting community. A large portion of BitTorrent traffic is based around music, movies, and television shows.
When you are trying to determine whether your torrenting activity is considered legal or not, you simply need to look at what types of files you are pulling as downloads. If you are using BitTorrent to download open-source software or other data that’s in the public domain, then there is no risk that you breaking the law. But if you are actively downloading content that is protected under copyright law, then you have entered a gray area.
It’s important to keep in mind that even if you choose not to use a VPN service when torrenting files, your internet service provider (ISP) will be able to monitor all traffic flowing to and from your computer.
As a result, they can track BitTorrent activity and determine whether the files you’ve downloaded constitute piracy or not.
Canada is generally considered to have a very lenient policy when it comes to dealing with internet piracy. Current legislation only requires that an ISP notifies the customer that an illegal download has been detected from their IP address. No fine or jail time can be associated with the notice.
But don’t assume that you have free reign to go and torrent every piece of media you can find. Copyright owners still have the ability to pursue legal action in Canada and other countries if they have proof that you obtained the files in an unlawful manner. The result can be a civil suit, where you are sued for monetary damages, but not a criminal case.
The architecture of BitTorrent is what makes the legality question so muddled. Because each node in the network only stores small bits of a file, it’s hard to determine who is truly culpable or responsible for the sharing of files from person to person.
As long as you keep yourself in check, you should be able to enjoy this revolutionary technology and have zero consequences.