What is Torrenting and how does it work?

If you were to Google the term “torrent”, you would likely find an amalgam of sketchy websites. Perhaps some Wikipedia entries about the technology and various clients that support it, and grave legal warnings about their potential for copyright infringement. Oddly, this is one of the few things one can Google and not get a clear, concise answer on what exactly torrenting is and how it came about.

Here’s a brief history of file-sharing that led to the widespread usage of torrents, how the P2P protocol works at a high level, the rise and downfall of copyright infringement enforcement, and whether torrenting is indeed legal or not.

Online File-Sharing: A Brief History

Though the Internet began as an exclusive space for academics to share research material, it gradually evolved into what it is now. In the early days of the Internet, connection speeds were so slow that online file-sharing wouldn’t have been feasible.

Speed meter showing fast Internet speed

However, as we entered the 1990s, DSL became widely available to consumers. It isn’t nearly as fast as cable or fiber, but it was the first time the average Internet user had access to “high-speed Internet”. This was the advent of file-sharing, but it didn’t involve torrents.

In those days, most people simply signed up for an email account from their ISP and had access to a free Usenet account. Usenet was used to share news articles quickly before websites were advanced. With clients known as “news readers”, most Internet users could take advantage of a “news search” through an index run by their ISPs.

Usenet had one major design flaw (or advantage, depending on one’s perspective). Users could attach files to news articles. At first, these attachments included content related to news articles posted to these services. Pretty soon, people began uploading MP3 songs and other smaller files to Usenet.

Because nobody had predicted that this technology would be used for wide-ranging copyright infringement, ISPs weren’t logging most Usenet transactions. But, as it became more and more centered around piracy, ISPs moved away from the technology.

Files being transferred between two computers

By the mid-2000s, Internet users were used to getting “free content” through illegitimate sources. Naturally, two technologies came to mind.

In modern times, Usenet is available, though typically not through an ISP. Most people must purchase a separate subscription. It’s also more challenging to find copyrighted titles on Usenet servers, since creators still regularly trawl Usenet for their content and request that it be taken down.

File Hosts and P2P

“File hosts” were initially used to share files. These operated in a similar fashion to Usenet, but they were accessible via HTTP. Of course, file hosts still exist, but you must pay a hefty premium for access.

The only free way left to share files was the P2P protocol. BitTorrent, invented by a college student in 2001, allowed users to share files in a decentralized manner. For the first time, copyright holders couldn’t simply send a takedown request to have their items removed. Since content is “seeded” by other peers and not a server, copyright holders’ best hope is to take down websites that contain magnet links and torrents.

How Does the Torrent Process Work?

First, a user must create a torrent. This is done through a BitTorrent client and creates a metadata file with information on the files of the torrent. With data allocated into “chunks”, hashes are also provided for each piece. This is to prevent malicious users from “poisoning” torrents with malware.

Once a .torrent file is made, the user must upload it to a torrenting site. It will initially only have one seed: the user who uploaded it. As others download it, they will also become seeds.

Seeds in a P2P network

Like all technologies, the P2P protocol has its downsides. Its largest downfall is that the IP addresses of users uploading and downloading a torrent at any time are viewable to anyone, provided it is a public torrent. That vulnerability is exploited by many content creation companies.

Public Torrents vs. Private Torrents

There’s a clear distinction between these types of torrents, and you can read about it in detail in our post about public and private torrent trackers. Public torrents are available to anyone around the world, and these are how 99% of “busts” occur. This is low-hanging fruit for rights holders, and using your actual IP to transfer copyrighted material via a public torrent is a recipe for disaster.

On the other hand, private torrents are only available to a selected audience. You’ll likely have to hunt for invitations to private torrent communities online. With these, you need to maintain a satisfactory “ratio” of uploaded to downloaded content. If you’re deemed a “leech”, you’ll likely be removed from the community. Private torrents don’t guarantee safety, but they’re a step in the right direction.

Wrapping Up

P2P’s history isn’t long, but it’s complex. It’s clear that companies are waking up to its benefits and are now trying to leverage BitTorrent technology to their advantage.

Security issues persist with the technology because it wasn’t initially created with the intent of masking users’ identities. However, with a few precautionary measures and some common sense, most will be fine taking advantage of the technology after due diligence.

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