Popular virtual private network (VPN) provider VeePN has agreed to block access to torrent and streaming websites on its servers located in the United States. This development comes after VeePN became entangled in a lawsuit filed by filmmakers alleging copyright infringement.
Let‘s take a closer look at what transpired and what it could mean for the VPN and streaming landscapes going forward.
Surging Streaming and Torrenting Activities
The growth of streaming entertainment and torrent downloads in recent years has been astronomical. According to Sandvine‘s 2022 Global Internet Phenomena Report, video streaming accounts for over 80% of downstream internet traffic globally. Netflix alone comprises 6% of total downstream bandwidth, with YouTube, Facebook and Instagram also in the top 10 bandwidth consumers.
Meanwhile, torrent traffic still maintains a small but steady share of global bandwidth at 3%. TorrentFreak estimates public torrent sites have 60+ million regular users. With affordable high-speed internet access spreading, streaming and torrenting activities continue to surge.
This has led to escalating game of whack-a-mole between copyright holders and piracy sites. But it has also put pressure on intermediaries like VPN and proxy services that allow users to access infringing content.
About Popcorn Time and Its Legal Status
Popcorn Time is a multi-platform streaming app for movies and shows that uses torrents behind the scenes to stream content. Released in 2014 and developed anonymously, Popcorn Time provided a slick and user-friendly interface for finding and watching video content from torrent sources.
At its peak popularity around 2015, Popcorn Time was installed on millions of devices. However, its legal status has always been controversial. Using Popcorn Time to watch copyrighted material without permission constitutes infringement in most countries. The app has seen continued development by anonymous contributors, despite various domains and hosts being taken down over the years.
VeePN is a VPN service founded in 2019 and based in Lithuania. The provider offers servers in over 30 countries and promises anonymous torrenting and streaming. Some key features include:
- Encrypted connections to protect privacy
- Unlimited bandwidth and high speeds
- Apps for major platforms like Windows, Android, iOS
- Support for torrenting and streaming
VeePN has marketed itself as a "Popcorn Time VPN" in the past, directly promoting compatibility with the popular but legally dubious streaming app Popcorn Time.
The Lawsuit Against VeePN
In July 2022, a group of filmmakers teamed up with Hawaiian law firm 42 Ventures to file a lawsuit against VeePN in a Virginia federal court. The plaintiffs allege that VeePN engaged in contributory copyright infringement by promoting and distributing Popcorn Time.
42 Ventures owns the trademark for Popcorn Time and has the logo registered for torrent site YTS.mx – both of which are advertised by VeePN.
The filmmakers requested a temporary restraining order to freeze VeePN‘s funds while the case proceeds. The court granted this request, requiring PayPal and AliPay to freeze VeePN‘s accounts.
Judge Anthony Trenga stated VeePN was "likely to succeed on their contributory infringement claim" based on the VPN‘s promotion of Popcorn Time.
VeePN Agrees to Block Streaming and Torrent Sites
To resolve the legal pressure, VeePN has now agreed to block access to torrent websites and various streaming sites for their servers located in the United States.
While the full settlement details remain private, VeePN stated they will not retain any user logs despite the blocks. Their Popcorn Time VPN page has already been removed following the initial court order.
This isn‘t the first time a VPN provider has faced legal trouble regarding Popcorn Time promotion. Earlier in 2022, LiquidVPN paid millions in damages after losing a similar lawsuit filed by filmmakers.
The Growth of VPNs Tied to Piracy Demands
VPN usage has exploded in recent years for both legitimate and piracy-related purposes. According to estimates from GlobalData, the global VPN market is set to grow from $31 billion in 2022 to over $75 billion by 2027.
Much of this surge is from consumers seeking privacy and security online. But a sizable portion of users turn to VPNs explicitly to access restricted streaming and torrenting sites.
Some providers have directly marketed themselves as "Popcorn Time VPNs" or "Torrenting VPNs" to attract this segment of users, despite the significant legal risks, as we‘ve seen with VeePN.
Previous VPN Crackdowns and Site Blocking
VeePN isn‘t the first VPN provider facing legal consequences for enabling access to infringing sites. In 2017, popular free VPN HolaVPN was caught selling users‘ bandwidth for botnets and malware distribution. The company claimed it only learned of the issue through media reports.
HolaVPN along with TorGuard were also caught secretly injecting ads into users‘ web traffic in 2016. And in 2018, TorGuard reversed its no logging claims after being subpoenaed over a revenge porn case.
Some VPNs have preemptively blocked sites in response to legal demands. In 2021, ExpressVPN removed servers from India when the government instituted new IT rules requiring them to retain user logs for up to 5 years.
But site blocking remains a concerning precedent that risks setting VPNs on a slippery slope toward broader censorship.
Digital Rights Groups Concerned Over Censorship Risks
Digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have raised concerns about the VeePN case and its implications.
As an EFF representative commented: "Site blocking at the ISP level has proven largely ineffective against piracy. Going further upstream and requiring intermediaries to block sites gives us pause regarding the evolution of internet censorship."
"While copyright protection is important, the interests of free speech online must also be considered when enacting enforcement policies that risk fragmenting the web."
Alternatives to Site Blocking for Copyright Enforcement
copyright holders have alternatives to pressuring VPNs and ISPs to block sites, while balancing concerns around censorship and overblocking.
Legal action can focus on the sources of pirated content, such as website owners, rather than middlemen. The FBI demonstrated this by taking down major cyberlocker Megaupload in 2012 through direct action against its operators.
Compliance with DMCA takedown processes can minimize the spread of infringing links on a decentralized basis. Copyright bots also allow large-scale automated removal of pirated streams/links on hosting platforms.
Technical options like site mirroring/proxying remain an ongoing challenge, however. Ultimately, better legal alternatives to piracy may prove the most effective remedy.
Pressure on VPNs from Both Sides
VPN providers face government pressure from both IP rights holders in the U.S. and authoritarian regimes abroad.
Russia recently banned several major VPNs like ExpressVPN and NordVPN for refusing to comply with new internet rules. This highlights the difficult balancing act VPNs face between demands for censorship, maintaining net neutrality principles, and avoiding unlawful activity.
How Torrenting Works
For those less familiar, torrenting involves downloading files from a decentralized network of peer sources, enabled by tracker servers. Rather than downloading a file from a single source, the torrent pieces come from other users who have already downloaded that file.
The torrent itself is just a small file with metadata that points your torrent client software to the trackers and peers you‘ll connect to for transferring the content. The tracked hash checksums ensure error-free file assembly.
Magnet links can also be used to initiate a download, containing the essential metadata to locate the torrent network resources on-the-fly.
Implications for VPN Providers and Users
The VeePN lawsuit demonstrates the evolving legal risks surrounding VPN services and their role in enabling access to infringing content. As copyright holders ramp up enforcement efforts, more providers could face pressure to implement site blocking or avoid certain types of promotion.
For users, this case underscores the importance of thoroughly vetting VPNs on their logging policies and stance on torrenting or streaming. Opting for a provider that is upfront about permitted usage and protects user privacy is key.
While site blocking itself does not indicate a VPN is unsafe, transparency from providers on these issues is beneficial for informed decision making.
Legal and Ethical Streaming Alternatives
For those looking to avoid legal hazards when streaming, plenty of legitimate options exist. Paid services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and HBO Max offer huge catalogs at reasonable subscription prices.
Many public domain, open source, and creative commons movies/shows are also legally available through above-board apps and sites like Vimeo and the Internet Archive. Users can enjoy this content freely and ethically.
When venturing into grey areas like torrenting, it‘s wise to use proper safety measures like VPNs, antivirus software, and avoiding suspicious sites. Ultimately though, legal streaming provides convenience without the risks and ethical quandaries.
As debates around copyright and content access rage on, staying vigilant on best practices keeps users securely enjoying entertainment. And although VPN providers face mounting pressure from multiple sides, legal alternatives present a straightforward path forward.