Why you can trust ZDNet
ZDNet independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.Our process
'ZDNet Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNet's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNet nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNet's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
BitTorrent is a complex topic. As a technology, it's perfectly legal. But what you do with it could be illegal.
Before we dive into the legalities of torrenting, let's do a quick recap of what BitTorrent is and how it works. Fundamentally, BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing network and protocol. But what does that mean? Well, normally when you download a file, you're pulling all the bits from one server. If that server has limited bandwidth, the number of people downloading might be quite limited.
BitTorrent splits that up. Files on the BitTorrent network are scattered in pieces among "seeders" (computers that host the full file) and downloaders, so when someone downloads a file, they're pulling pieces of that file from many different machines. That's the peer-to-peer component of torrenting. You're not just pulling from one central server; you're pulling from other users (peers) on the torrent network.
Why would you do this? For smaller files, torrenting is not important. But for really big files, torrenting helps distribute the load among users. And what are big files? Video. A two-hour HD movie uses up to about 8GB. A TV series could use upwards of 80GB per season of the show. Other big files are software distributions, like Linux distros, games, large images, and big datasets.
The problem is that most often, BitTorrent is used to share video. And most often, BitTorrent is used to share copyrighted video like popular movies and TV shows. And the problem with that is that doing so is illegal in most jurisdictions. And that is how we come back to VPNs, because while VPNs can protect your usage and location for legitimate reasons, VPNs can also facilitate illegal activity.
This has not gone unnoticed by movie studios and other victims of digital piracy. In May, a case assigned to U.S. District Judge S. Kato Crews, 1:21-cv-01261, Millennium Funding, Inc. et al v. Sharktech, Inc. et al was filed against an Internet hosting provider that operated servers for a number of VPN firms. According to TorrentFreak, the parties settled for an undisclosed sum just this month.
Another case, Case 1:21-cv-00643-RDA-MSN, filed in Virginia pits various movie studios against VPN companies ExpressVPN, Surfshark, VPN Unlimited (another name for the owners of ExpressVPN, according to the complaint), and Zenmate. This complaint not only targets illegal downloading of content, but also specifically cites examples of VPNs used to facilitate trade in child pornography including United States of America v. Frank Richard Beyer, 0:19-cr-60360-RAR, where Beyer admitted to using ExpressVPN for his heinous and disgusting acts.
We had an internal debate about the ethics of even writing an article about using VPNs for torrenting. But as I said at the beginning of this article, it's not the technology itself that's illegal. The illegality is in how some users use it.
And so, we're providing you with a list of four of the more popular VPN services that can be used for torrenting. We explicitly do not endorse the use of torrenting, but because BitTorrent is as valid for sharing legitimate software and video distribution from open source and copyright-free providers, we feel that sharing this is a necessary part of our coverage, especially now that you understand some of the issues involved.
NordVPN is one of the most popular consumer VPNs out there. Last year, Nord announced that it had been breached. Unfortunately, the breach had been active for more than 18 months. While there were failures at every level, NordVPN has taken substantial efforts to remedy the breach.
In our review, we liked that it offered capabilities beyond basic VPN, including support of P2P sharing, a service it calls Double VPN that does a second layer of encryption, Onion over VPN which allows for TOR capabilities over its VPN, and even a dedicated IP if you're trying to run a VPN that also doubles as a server. It supports all the usual platforms and a bunch of home network platforms as well. The company also offers NordVPN Teams, which provides centralized management and billing for a mobile workforce.
Performance testing was adequate, although ping speeds were slow enough that I wouldn't want to play a twitch video game over the VPN. To be fair, most VPNs have pretty terrible ping speeds, so this isn't a weakness unique to Nord. Overall, a solid choice, and with a 30-day money-back guarantee, worth a try.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Chrome, plus routers, Fire Stick, and Kodi
Logging: None, except billing data
Trial/MBG: 30 day
IPVanish is a deep and highly configurable product that presents itself as a click-and-go solution. I think the company is selling itself short by doing this. A quick visit to its website shows a relatively generic VPN service, but that's not the whole truth.
Its UI provides a wide range of server selection options, including some great performance graphics. It also has a wide variety of protocols, so no matter what you're connecting to, you can know what to expect. The company also provides an excellent server list with good current status information. There's also a raft of configuration options for the app itself.
In terms of performance, connection speed was crazy fast. Overall transfer performance was good. However, from a security perspective, it wasn't able to hide that I was connecting via a VPN -- although the data transferred was secure. Overall, a solid product with a good user experience that's fine for home connections as long as you're not trying to hide the fact that you're on a VPN.
The company also has a partnership with SugarSync and provides 250GB of encrypted cloud storage with each plan.
ExpressVPN has been burning up the headlines with some pretty rough news. We've chosen to leave ExpressVPN in this recommendation, and I wouldn't necessarily dismiss ExpressVPN out of hand because of these reports, but it's up to you to gauge your risk level. The best way to do that is read our in-depth analysis:
ExpressVPN is one of the most popular VPN providers out there, offering a wide range of platforms and protocols. Platforms include Windows, Mac, Linux, routers, iOS, Android, Chromebook, Kindle Fire, and even the Nook device. There are also browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox. Plus, ExpressVPN works with PlayStation, Apple TV, Xbox, Amazon Fire TV, and the Nintendo Switch. There's even a manual setup option for Chromecast, Roku, and Nvidia Switch.
With 160 server locations in 94 countries, ExpressVPN has a considerable VPN network across the internet. In CNET's review of the service, staff writer Rae Hodge reported that ExpressVPN lost less than 2% of performance with the VPN enabled and using the OpenVPN protocol vs. a direct connection.
While the company does not log browsing history or traffic destinations, it does log dates connected to the VPN service, amount transferred, and VPN server location. We do want to give ExpressVPN kudos for making this information very clear and easily accessible.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Fire TV, Firefox, Chrome
Logging: None, except billing data
Trial/MBG: 30 day
At two bucks a month for a two-year plan (billed in one chunk), Surfshark offers a good price for a solid offering. In CNET's testing, no leaks were found (and given that much bigger names leaked connection information, that's a big win). The company seems to have a very strong security focus, offering AES-256-GCM, RSA-2048, and Perfect Forward Secrecy encryption. To prevent WebRTC leaks, Surfshark offers a special purpose browser plugin designed specifically to combat those leaks.
Surfshark's performance was higher than NordVPN and Norton Secure VPN, but lower than ExpressVPN and IPVanish. That said, Surfshark also offers a multihop option that allows you to route connections through two VPN servers across the Surfshark private network. We also like that the company offers some inexpensive add-on features, including ad-blocking, anti-tracking, access to a non-logging search engine, and a tool that tracks your email address against data breach lists.
In most countries, it's not a crime to use the technology or the software. But if you're trafficking in the distribution of illegal content or you're distributing content illegally, it can be a crime.
How do I know what's safe to download?
While there's no universal answer, here's a quick guide. Is it child porn? Disgusting, illegal, and we hope the authorities find you and lock you up. Is it a commercially available TV show? Piracy and probably illegal. Is it a recent mainstream movie? Piracy and probably illegal. Is it a Linux distribution? Probably legal. Is it a movie or video from a known legitimate distributor of content, like the Internet Archive? Probably legal.
If VPNs don't keep records of my use, how can I get caught?
First, keep in mind that law enforcement and major movie studios are devoting a lot more resources to penetrating the VPN veil than you or VPN services can to block penetration. The Virginia case, cited above, is an interesting read about how lawyers are not only penetrating secrecy, but also blasting away at the marketing hype of jurisdictional safety. Don't use VPNs for something heinous or illegal and you'll be safe. And yes, I know we've talked about using VPNs for legitimate personal protection reasons, but I just did an entire discussion about how VPN service providers might not provide enough protection. Read that next.