The Legal Risk to Using Torrents

The world of peer to peer downloads is flourishing.  The technology has been around for years and although initially used to generally download copies of pirated software it is now used in the mainstream to distribute patches, software updates and all sorts of digital data.

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It is however still primarily used in the shady corners of the internet, simply because no one is specifically responsible for hosting the copyrighted material.  It’s why the huge torrent sites like the Pirate’s Bay have been able to defend themselves in court, they may enable the ability to download pirated copies of the latest movies but at no point do they host the offending files.  It takes advantage of the global confusion of internet law to provide a service which technically rarely directly breaches any laws.

There is a problem though for the users who download this content, because although the files are shared anonymously by thousands of users across the internet – it is individuals who actually download these files.   This is becoming the focus of copyright holders who are increasingly targeting the individuals who downloading the files, rather than the torrent sites which enable these downloads.

The reason is that using a BitTorrent client affords the user very little privacy, the reality is that it’s very easy to see the exact identity of who is downloading these illegal copies.  So the copyright holders can quickly obtain a huge list of people who have downloaded illegal copies of their content – which is a potential goldmine.  The reality is that all these people saving a few dollars from downloading rather than buying the latest DVD are risking a much larger fine issued directly or via a DCMA notice.   These torrents offer no privacy at all, and although it is possible to enable anonymous torrenting by using encryption and a VPN not many people take this option.

The idea many people have is that they are anonymous sitting at home at their computer screen which is unfortunately a long way from the truth.   The reality is that especially when using home internet connections that

  • They are easily identified.
  • What you do online is very visible.

Not only is this information available it’s also easily accessible to anyone with the right resources either commercially or legally.  People think that if they live in an open, democratic society their privacy will be respected online however that is simply not the case.  In the UK currently one of the biggest pieces of surveillance legislation is being implemented – dubbed the ‘snoopers charter’.

 

Further Reading

Netflix Blocking VPNs, James Williams, Weber Press, 2016

Essential Internet Tools – Smart DNS

The Domain Name System (DNS) is of course probably well known to anyone who regularly uses the internet.  It lies at the very core of the world wide web and it’s job is to resolve our friendly www addresses into IP addresses which computers can understand.   Of course you don’t need to know how it works, DNS will simply do it’s job in the background directing your browser to the correct location.

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Many countries and governments do mess around with DNS however by ‘modifying’ the address lists in order to block or control access to specific sites.  Turkey even to this day regularly changes the addresses of popular social media sites when there’s unrest in the air, the goal is to stop people talking and organizing protests on these sites.   So if you try and visit Facebook you’ll instead be routed through to a Government owned web server instead.   It’s easily bypassed by using a DNS server not controlled by the Turkish State, but not everyone is able to do this.

So what’s Smart DNS?

This is the other side of the coin from the filters and censors who spoof or poison DNS tables, others have developed an intelligent version of the domain name system.   Instead of sitting passively and merely returning the IP addresses of requested web pages, Smart DNS will actually control some of the routing involved.

A typical example is for accessing region locked web sites like Netflix.  Normally when you visit Netflix you are directed to the version that is associated with your physical location, or given a ‘sorry message’ if there isn’t one. People have for years used VPNs and proxies to bypass this restriction by hiding their real addresses and accessing which ever version of Netflix they wish.  Smart DNS does the same but instead of routing your entire internet connection through a VPN server it simply waits to see when a region locked website like the BBC or Netflix is accessed.

When you do try and access such a site, the DNS server will route your connection through an appropriate server e.g a US server for US Netflix, a British one for the BBC iPlayer.  Many websites however don’t like this and you may have to search for a service which works for things like Netflix – read this article – Smart DNS Netflix for an illustration.

There is undoubtedly a technological battle going on all across the internet for control of what we can access.  On one side if we have the vast resources of governments, states and global companies who wish to control what we see for political, religious or financial reasons.   This is of course the side with huge resources like the Chinese Government who spend millions on their huge firewall for example.  Fortunately there are also thousands of individuals and small innovative companies on the other side developing VPN and proxy based systems like Smart DNS to bypass these blocks.   These ‘internet freedom fighters’ and their technical expertise are all that stand between a heavily censored and controlled internet – let’s hope they continue this great works.