How The Pirate Bay’s Anti-Censorship ‘PirateBrowser’ Works

A customized version of Firefox claims to throw off censorship shackles.

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For its 10th anniversary, The Pirate Bay has released something it’s dubbed PirateBrowser: a mashup of Firefox and Tor (nee “The Onion Router” — more on that in a moment), offering a simple, ready-made way to circumvent what the site says is online censorship by various countries around the globe.

I’ll talk about how the browser works in a minute, as well as why, contrary to what you might be thinking, it’s not necessarily intended as a workaround for illicit file-sharing, but let’s talk about the site behind the curtain for a moment.

Sweden’s The Pirate Bay (TPB) emerged in September 2003 and went on to become the Internet’s go-to repository for peer-to-peer file sharing — some of it legal, some of it not. The site itself is deceptively simple-looking, just a search box that summons links to tiny metadata-laden text files known as torrents, which in turn link to trackers that provide information necessary to assemble whatever files you’re after. Those files are broken into pieces which your sharing client takes (and gives, as you receive the pieces) to constellations of network peers. The more people sharing, the faster the material comes down, assembled non-sequentially from scattered bits and pieces residing within a vast network of discrete, torrent-linked computers. In recent years, TPB has shifted to magnet links, which eliminate intermediary torrent trackers and having to download metadata, as well as further anonymizing who’s doing what while making efforts to block content more difficult.

The Pirate Bay hosts plenty of legitimate content, of course, from public domain e-books and music to videos and documentaries (including one about the site’s lengthy legal slog). But it’s probably best known for all of the illicit material its torrent files and magnet links index, from rips of popular TV shows and handheld cam-grabs of recent theatrical releases to music albums, pornography, software and more. It’s thus highly controversial, embroiled in international brouhahas and the subject of debates about the ethics of copyright law as well as questions of responsibility, i.e. should a site (or ISP, or anyone along the chain) that hosts user-generated content be held accountable for said users’ actions if the material turns out to be illegal.

Those controversies aside, PirateBrowser is TPB’s attempt to make it possible to access its website in countries that currently cut off access to its host servers; TPB calls it “unblocking” software. I haven’t personally test-driven it — it’s for Windows at this point, and I’m running OS X — so I can’t vouch for its viability as a secure Tor browser (or, configured as such, as a stable one), but it’s clearly aimed at users who wouldn’t otherwise bother — or be capable of bothering — with setting up Tor access manually.

All you need do, according to TPB’s instruction page, is download the executable, launch it and browse away. By plugging into Tor’s network — a network that includes undisclosed bridges (a.k.a. unlisted Tor relays) — the browser can circumvent ISP filtering, since an ISP can’t filter what it doesn’t know about. As Tor puts it, “If you suspect your access to the Tor network is being blocked, you may want to use the bridge feature of Tor.”

What it’s not: a privacy shield, and PirateBrowser won’t let you browse the web anonymously. As TPB notes, it’s “intended just to circumvent censorship — to remove limits on accessing websites your government doesn’t want you to know about.”

Here’s TPB’s blog explanation:

Do you know any people who can’t access TPB or other torrents-sites because they are blocked? Recommend PirateBrowser to them. It’s a simple one-click browser that circumvents censorship and blockades and makes the site instantly available and accessible. No bundled ad-ware, toolbars or other crap, just a Pre-configured Firefox browser.

Tor, the technology bundled under the hood, is anonymizing software, but if you want to use it as such, you’ll have to download and configure it with your own browser separately. As Tor puts it, its client is designed to thwart traffic analysis (both simple or sophisticated) by distributing your activity across multiple points, eliminating single-source tracking:

The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several relays that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it’s going.

Click through to any of those Tor links and you’ll see why the idea of a ready-made anti-censorship browser has such allure: setting up Tor takes more than casual network know-how. How many people in countries that actively censor the Internet haven’t bothered with workarounds because the complexity threshold’s too high?

Setting the question of TPB’s motivations aside for a moment, if something like PirateBrowser really does what it claims to, it could be a boon for casual users living in countries whose governments currently block access to sites like Google+, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and more. Indeed — and again assuming all of this works as TPB claims — it’s remarkable that no one else, whether Google, Apple, Microsoft or Mozilla itself, has bothered to craft such a product.