A whole generation of Internet users has grown up with Torrents and all the goodies they could offer. That said, while torrents may have played a pivotal role in the history of online sharing, they might soon be history themselves, making space for alternatives, such as magnet links.
If you’ve been scouting popular torrenting sites, like The Pirate Bay, for a while, you’ve probably noticed a link adjacent to the download file with a magnet symbol. That’s a magnet link, one of the increasingly popular ways to download media online.
What Are Magnet Links?
A magnet link is a hyperlink that gives you direct access to a hash code for a torrent file. A hash code is a technical term for a numeric value that uniquely identifies a package. When you access a website using its URL, you’re asking a distant server to essentially hash your request so that it can provide the webpage you want.
In a similar way, a magnet link can immediately configure with any torrent client to find valid peers sharing the same file. It employs DHT, also known as distributed hash tables, to seamlessly locate the IP address of sharing peers.
Trackerless torrenting is often used interchangeably with the term magnet link, though the former is an umbrella category encompassing a broad number of distributed technologies.
How Does a Magnet Link Work?
We will briefly dive into some of the more hairy details of how these super small bits of information function in the real world.
Magnet links, or Magnet URIs (uniform resource identifiers), consist of several compact arguments formatted as question and answer strings. Let’s look at the “about file” of a common magnet link:
The “magnet:” keyword is fed one or more parameters, just like how algebraic functions identify variables with letters. Most importantly, the “xt” argument refers to the “exact topic” that is fed to the torrent client to search for the desired media. In the example above, we’re searching for one download file that’s broken up into two pieces, xt.1 and xt.2.
The question mark after “magnet:” means that we’re asking for information split up into queries, or questions and answers values. Each parameter is followed by its explicit value with an equal sign, while additional arguments are separated by the “&” symbol.
How to Open a Magnet Link?
Funnily enough, you’ve probably been using magnet links without even realizing it.
A magnet link is effortless to open, and it works the same way on every browser. First, visit a torrent site that offers magnet links as a download option, like The Pirate Bay. You will only have to click on the link with the magnet symbol, like the one on the image below.
Your browser will then open the default torrent program and start the download process.
Magnet Links vs. Normal Torrents
Compared to traditional torrent links and download files, magnet links reduce the number of steps to access media.
Traditional torrent links require downloading a file containing the hash code needed to locate the desired content. This hefty file includes the name of the desired media, a URL for the BitTorrent tracker, and other necessary metadata. Your default BitTorrent client will calculate the hash code needed to connect to peers using this small file.
By contrast, magnet links immediately trigger your default client to request online media from sharing peers. There’s no need to decrypt additional files, and the link will never request services from an intermediate tracker.
Why are Torrenting Sites Transitioning to Magnet Links?
Nowadays, many sites are moving away from the traditional approach and slowly phasing out torrent files, download links, and other tracker-based technologies. As major flagship sites face mounting legal trouble, it becomes essential for the site to obfuscate its relationship to copyrighted material.
Since magnet links merely contain a string of numbers and letters, they aren’t directly tied to the illegal content provided through peers. The burden falls on your default torrent client, which is now doing all the work to pair you with movies, music, and other media.
They’re also much easier for bloated torrenting sites to host. Traditional files may require kilobytes of extra data, since the actual content is directly traced back to the site. On the other hand, magnet links only contain the identification number for media, making them comparatively smaller.
You Still Need to Protect Yourself
It’s true that by eliminating the torrent tracker step, your online safety increases. Your details are not visible anymore, and fewer entities have access to them. But that doesn’t put you on the safe side. You are still downloading a file with a BitTorrent client and your ISP can still see your activity and identify you. And in some cases, they can sell that information to third parties.
It’s still important to use a Virtual Private Network that allows BitTorrent traffic. Only that will keep you away from snoopers who may use your activity against you.
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Are Magnet Links the Future of Torrenting?
Magnet links offer an alternative to traditional torrenting. Many users looking for a decentralized form of file-sharing are already making the switch. The chances are that they will become the industry standard and make BitTorrent trackers somewhat obsolete.
However, the old way of torrenting is not going away overnight. For example, some top services, such as uTorrent and Deluge, continue using trackers to speed up the process of peer discovery.
For now, both options are available on many popular torrent sites. Only time will tell which sharing greets the next generation of file-sharers.