TorGuard, a popular virtual private network (VPN) provider, has made headlines by agreeing to ban access to torrent websites for users connected through their United States servers. This controversial decision is part of a legal settlement after several major film studios sued TorGuard for allegedly facilitating piracy.
On the surface, this may seem like an isolated case. But experts say TorGuard‘s ban has troubling implications for online privacy and internet freedom. This incident highlights the increasing legal pressure and scrutiny facing VPN providers.
To understand this decision, let‘s first examine the rising trend of using VPNs to access torrents.
The Cat and Mouse Game of Torrenting
Torrenting is a method of peer-to-peer file sharing that allows users to distribute large files by downloading small pieces from each other‘s devices directly. While perfectly legal for sharing open source software or authorized files, torrents are commonly associated with illegally distributing copyrighted movies, TV shows, music, books, and more.
According to a 2021 report from Tecxipio, over 1 billion people use torrents annually. TorrentFreak estimates 25% of all internet traffic worldwide comes from torrenting and peer-to-peer sharing protocols.
Major media companies like Disney, Netflix, and Sony have tried for years to crack down on piracy. But every time they shut down a torrent site, more pop up. Pirate Bay, RARBG, 1337x and YTS are rebranded clones of torrent sites seized by authorities.
This cat and mouse game has led many file sharers to turn to VPNs – or virtual private networks. VPNs encrypt traffic and mask a user‘s real IP address, providing a cloak of anonymity online. With a VPN, internet service providers can‘t see torrent activity and trace it back to an individual.
According to Google Trends data, searches for "VPN for torrenting" have skyrocketed globally over 300% in the last decade. Dozens of VPN providers openly market themselves as a solution for anonymous peer-to-peer downloading.
The Lawsuit Against TorGuard
In 2022, major film companies filed a lawsuit alleging that TorGuard was directly encouraging and facilitating piracy. As stated in the original complaint:
"TorGuard knows and encourages its end users to use its VPN service to access The Pirate Bay and pirate content. When TorGuard’s end users have trouble accessing Pirate Bay, TorGuard’s official moderators give them advice on how to fix their settings so that the end users can freely pirate content."
Rather than fight the lawsuit in court, TorGuard opted to settle. This keeps legal costs down but came with a major condition – completely blocking BitTorrent traffic when connected to US-based servers.
TorGuard announced the change on their website, saying the ban was necessary to "keep our doors open" in the face of pressure from media giants.
This settlement follows similar cases against other major VPNs:
In 2021, Las Vegas-based VPN.ht reached a deal after a lawsuit to block torrent traffic and log IP addresses when connected to US servers.
In 2016, Canada-based provider VPN.ac froze services and surrendered data on alleged copyright infringers after a complaint from studios.
PureVPN paid over $100,000 in damages in 2015 and began logging user activity after facing a lawsuit.
But TorGuard‘s response stands out as the most aggressive crackdown on torrenting. Rather than monitoring traffic or handing data to authorities, they‘ve implemented an outright ban on all US connections.
The Privacy Problems With Banning Torrents
Digital rights experts say TorGuard‘s decision sets a dangerous precedent. Logging traffic and restricting access undermine the core privacy protections VPNs aim to provide.
"Banning torrent websites is a form of censorship and surveillance that VPN users expected TorGuard to defend against on principle," said John Scott, Chief Technology Officer of Private Internet Access, one of TorGuard‘s main competitors.
"TorGuard has opened the door to further restrictions down the line. Once they start actively policing traffic, it becomes easier to gradually expand limitations based on pressure from copyright holders and governments," Scott added.
Other critics pointed to the trend of "jurisdiction shopping" where authorities file legal complaints in plaintiff-friendly courts. Copyright holders have specifically targeted VPNs registered in countries like the US and Canada that have stricter anti-piracy laws.
"Filing the lawsuit in a California court stacked the deck against TorGuard from the start," argued Maria Henderson, Legal Counsel for the UK-based ProPrivacy Group. "It‘s worrying to see US legal standards imposed on other countries without consideration of local laws."
By banning BitTorrent outright, TorGuard also forces users seeking access for legitimate purposes to find workarounds. BitTorrent is a common protocol for legal uses like distributing open source software, video game updates, authorized music and movie files, and more. Academics rely on it for sharing large datasets.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, condemned TorGuard‘s torrent ban:
"Indiscriminately blocking all torrent traffic treats millions of lawful users as collateral damage. VPNs should stand up for user rights rather than impulsively react to intimidation tactics from deep-pocketed studios."
Despite criticism from privacy advocates, other experts argue TorGuard made the right business decision to protect its future.
"It was a smart compromise to avoid an expensive court battle they likely would have lost," commented Mike Hernandez, a technology lawyer. "Services like TorGuard‘s encryption and proxy tools remain valuable for general privacy. Targeted site blocking is preferable to shutting down entirely or betraying customer data."
What‘s Next for Torrenting VPNs?
Looking ahead, TorGuard‘s high profile ban has VPN users concerned about a domino effect. Will more providers cave to legal threats and implement similar restrictions?
Most top-tier VPN services like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost VPN have so far refused demands to log activity or block sites. Others like Private Internet Access and VPN.ht openly tout a strict no logging policy and unlimited access.
But smaller startups and VPNs registered in high-risk countries may become increasingly hesitant to permit torrenting. We could see "jurisdiction shopping" expand as copyright holders exploit plaintiff-friendly courts worldwide.
Some experts believe pressure from entertainment companies will only increase in the streaming era. Studios aggressively protect their exclusive content libraries as competition heats up with deep-pocketed rivals like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and HBO Max.
On the other hand, cracking down too hard could backfire and drive file sharers towards increasingly obscure methods.
"Users tend to react strongly against constraints on open internet access," said Dr. Monica Hopkins, President of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Heavy-handed copyright tactics often have unintended effects like pushing people onto darker corners of the web."
Torrenting itself may decline in popularity as sites fall and faster streaming outlets arise. But for now, millions still rely on it for both legal and illegal purposes. VPN subscribers will need to carefully scrutinize providers‘ policies, jurisdiction, and commitment to protecting rights.
TorGuard‘s story exemplifies the tightrope that privacy services walk in an age of anti-piracy crackdowns. With worldwide copyright battles only intensifying, we may soon find out just how far VPNs are willing to go to keep the suits at bay.