What Is Torrenting and How Does It Work?

Torrenting is an action involving the transfer of digital files between peers connected via the BitTorrent protocol. This process works by breaking down large files into small pieces and then distributing them across a network of computers, or “peers.” Once all the pieces have been downloaded, they are reassembled into the original file.

What Does it Mean to “Torrent”?

When we say that we are torrenting a file, we can infer that we are downloading it or seeding it. In other words, we are receiving or sending data. More than two decades ago, we would have referred to this action as file sharing, which is exactly what torrenting is. 

Data being transferred via torrents

To torrent, we use software applications that use BitTorrent technology, such as BitTorrent clients. Everyone who torrented has heard about the most popular ones, such as uTorrent or qBitTorrent.

If you open a BitTorrent client on your computer, and you didn’t stop or delete a torrent you downloaded, it’s correct to say you are torrenting. That’s because the client’s default settings allow other peers to connect and download files you are seeding.

Nowadays, the word torrenting has a broader meaning than it used to. It can mean downloading, seeding, creating a torrent file, and launching it on a tracker for other torrent clients to interact with. You could even say that you are engaged in torrenting if you are merely searching for files that you intend to download.

The word itself is used as a verb. As of 2018, it has been submitted to the McMillan Open Dictionary, which suggests that it may follow a path similar to “texting” or “googling” in the near future.

What is BitTorrent?

The technology behind torrenting is the BitTorrent protocol. It’s a communication protocol for peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing that is used to distribute data over the Internet. It was built in 2001 by Bram Cohen, who is also the creator of the first BitTorrent client, BitTorrent.

The main principle behind the BitTorrent protocol is that it enables users to download small pieces of a file from different sources, which are then put together on the user’s computer.

How does the BitTorrent Protocol Work?

Similar to other P2P protocols, BitTorrent is decentralized. It connects peers through a .torrent file that gets in touch with a tracker. The protocol is tasked with creating a network between trackers and peers. Each time a BitTorrent client issues an instruction to download a file, a swarm forms in the network.

Seeders and peers exchanging data

Inside the torrent swarm, complex exchanges of information and data take place. But it’s easy to understand how it works; peers within swarms share information with the tracker regarding the torrent file. That information lets the tracker know which pieces of the file each peer is missing and which pieces it already has.

That’s how the tracker instructs each BitTorrent client on what pieces to upload and download. It’s a two-way transmission of data whereby peers are simultaneously sharing and downloading.

BitTorrent Vs. Other File Sharing Protocols

Besides being open source and having many years of development, other factors set BitTorrent apart from other P2P protocols. 

One of its advantages is that you do not share all the files in a designated folder. Other P2P networks such as SoulSeek are notorious for this, and it can be problematic when you inadvertently place personal files or copyrighted materials therein.

With torrenting, metadata must be attached to each torrent file. That way, you do not have to worry about accidentally sharing intimate photographs, unless you create torrent files of them.

Is Torrenting and its Related Protocols Legal?

Torrenting is an entirely legal activity. The protocols associated with it, such as BitTorrent, are also legal. However, sharing copyrighted material without permission is considered illegal in most countries.

For more information about this subject, check our post about the legality of torrenting.

A Bit of Torrenting History

The BitTorrent protocol celebrated its 20th birthday in early July 2021. Its launch was announced by Bram Cohen, a computer programmer whose interest in digital file sharing started while attending college in Buffalo. Cohen developed both the protocol and its very first software client, which was coded in Python.

By the time Cohen launched BitTorrent, peer-to-peer (P2P) was already well-established. In fact, he always intended to improve upon the P2P networks of the time. These early networks were centralized, like Audiogalaxy and Napster, or decentralized, like Gnutella. 

Cohen changed torrenting

An essential aspect of P2P that Cohen brought to the table was the involvement of indexing files through the web. Before BitTorrent, many fans of P2P file sharing would only open their clients without launching their web browsers. That’s because the indexing, whether centralized or decentralized, took place within the software application.

The open source nature of BitTorrent resulted in various improvements to the protocol and the clients, which are all derived from the original Python app developed by Cohen. Azureus was a major player upon its first release in 2003. It would later contribute important features such as distributed tracking. 

Etree was the goal

Finally, we couldn’t discuss the history of BitTorrent without mentioning eTree. According to Cohen, BitTorrent was built for the eTree community. This site provided a digital version of the old “tape tree” networks used to share recorded concerts of jam bands such as The Grateful Dead and Phish. These artists are known to allow and even encourage the trading of bootleg recordings.

Advantages of Torrenting

With such sophisticated file sharing technology, it’s no wonder that torrenting has become increasingly popular. The following are a few of the advantages that make it so attractive.

It’s a faster download method

The nature of torrenting makes it much faster than downloading from a standard website or an FTP server. Thanks to the peer-to-peer architecture behind the BitTorrent protocol, where users share files between each other, torrents can be downloaded from multiple sources at once, which further increases the speed.

And because torrents are decentralized, there’s no need to worry about a single server being overloaded and causing the download to slow down.

Diversity of content

The first and most obvious advantage of torrenting is the diversity of content that’s available. With the increasing popularity of this file sharing method, many sources have begun offering their content via torrents. You can find everything from books and music to movies and software.

Ease of use

Among the many advantages of torrenting, ease of use is one of the most appealing. Unlike other methods of downloading content, torrenting does not require technical expertise. All that is needed is a BitTorrent client, which can be downloaded for free, and a reliable source of torrents.

Once these are in place, downloading content is as simple as selecting a file and clicking “download.” Additionally, torrents can be paused and resumed at any time, which is convenient for large files or for users with limited bandwidth.

Companies and artists can take advantage of it

Companies and even Governments use torrenting to distribute large files quickly and easily. Additionally, artists can use torrenting to share their work with a broader audience. This provides users and customers with a better way to access the content.

We wrote a post where we explore different ways torrents are used, which will give you a better idea of how this file sharing method can be used in a positive way.

Disadvantages of Torrenting

Even though torrenting has many positive uses and advantages, it has disadvantages too.

You share your IP address

The most cited drawback is that the protocol requires you to share your public IP address with the rest of the network, including the torrent tracker. Torrenting is somewhat anonymous in the sense that you do not have to register on the network personally.

Still, your IP address could be a stepping stone for others in the swarm to start sleuthing and figuring out some of your personal information.

Thankfully, a VPN will hide your IP and encrypt the data you downloaded, to protect your privacy. That way, others will not know what you are downloading or sharing.

Your internet connection will be slower

Your internet speed will probably drop when you’re downloading, seeding, or both. And it’s easy to understand why; The data transfer is consuming your bandwidth, and simple actions such as loading a website could take a long time.

If that’s happening to you, try to limit your torrent client’s download and upload rate. It will provide more bandwidth for the remaining online activities.

You Risk Downloading Malware

It is impossible to verify the integrity of torrent files before downloading them. The BitTorrent protocol has a checksum function to confirm that the file you are downloading is indeed the one you intend to get. But it must be enabled at the client level. 

Sometimes, a virus may hide in a torrent file, especially on public trackers. Antivirus software and other security applications can mitigate this risk. It’s also good to read the comments on the torrent’s page to see if other users point out any danger connected to that particular file.

Conclusion

BitTorrent has been around for more than twenty years. In that time, it has become one of the most popular methods for sharing files online.

This technology has its advantages and disadvantages, but the ease of use and the ability to share large files quickly make it appealing to many users.