What is Torrenting?

Torrenting is an action involving the transfer of digital files between peers connected via the BitTorrent protocol. 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.

History of Torrenting

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. 

An important aspect of P2P that Cohen brought to the table was the involvement of indexing files through the web. Prior to 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. Moreover, you had other fun features such as chat, messaging, and even media players to keep you informed and entertained. 

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. 

Finally, we couldn’t discuss the history of BitTorrent without mentioning eTree. According to Cohen, BitTorrent was built for the eTree community, a site that 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.

What It Means to “Torrent” in 2022

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. 

Files being transferred between two computers

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

If you open a torrent 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.

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, which in some cases is a server dedicated to torrenting. The protocol is tasked with creating a network between trackers and peers. Each time a client issues an instruction to download a file, a swarm forms in the network.

Seeders and leechers in a P2P swarm

Inside the 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 what pieces to upload and download. It’s a two-way transmission of data whereby peers are simultaneously sharing and downloading.

There are different types of peers

A BitTorrent swarm requires at least one peer with a complete file to allow others to complete their download requests. We call these peers “seeders,” and their contributions are the most appreciated. Seeders are the ones who have already downloaded the complete file and continue uploading (seeding) it for extended periods. That way, peers who are still downloading will also benefit from additional bandwidth.

“Leechers” are the opposite of seeders because they do not make their files available to others. If you want to know more about this, we wrote a post with the detailed definitions of seeders, leechers and peers.

Trackers don’t necessarily have to be servers

With regard to the trackers we mentioned earlier, they don’t necessarily need to be dedicated servers. The current BitTorrent protocol has been updated with distributed hash tables (DHT) technology that can effectively turn peers into trackers. In reality, the peers act more like network nodes, but they offer the functionality of a tracker.

BitTorrent Vs. Other File Sharing Protocols

Besides being open source and having many years of development, there are other factors that 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.

Uses of Torrenting that You May Not Know About

As of 2022, BitTorrent is the preferred file sharing protocol for most internet users. If you need to distribute large amounts of digital information to multiple receivers, BitTorrent is the way to go.

Business related transfers

A business transfer being made through torrents

Many would be surprised to learn that tech businesses use P2P technology in their operations.

When you want to download a Linux distribution, for example, its respective website will urge you to download it through the BitTorrent network, instead of from an HTTP mirror. And you will want to do this if it is a large file.

Since about 2015, Microsoft has been using a version of the BitTorrent protocol to distribute Windows updates, which we all know keep getting larger. This eased the load on Microsoft by lowering server costs.

NASA has distributed high-resolution images of space through torrenting. Government agencies in the United Kingdom have also made good use of the network to release large data files to the public.

New artists get more exposure

Many new artists and studios have found that P2P communities are great for getting initial exposure when sharing their first works for free. The goal of such artists is not to sell albums but to attract people to their concerts.

Known artists boost their sales

Some famous artists also use BitTorrent to share albums. 

Thom Yorke

In what was initially considered a bizarre move by many, Thom Yorke, of the band “Radiohead,” began putting albums on P2P networks, free of charge. 

They’ve updated their business model to allow users to pay, but not require them to send money to receive their latest albums. And they’ve had great success with this strategy.

While many groups representing artists ardently pursue those who use P2P to obtain their music (more on that later), Radiohead did the exact opposite. They allowed their albums to be on traditional “pirate” platforms.

But, they also offered their own torrent on their site, requiring users to sign up and choose a price. This way, the band could gather more data on their fans and know what to put in their following albums.

Nine Inch Nails did a similar thing. The band had seen lackluster sales and went to P2P platforms as a last resort. Like Radiohead, they allowed potential fans to torrent their music and “choose” a fee for their albums. At first, it appeared that people were simply downloading their albums for free.

However, the decision to make their music available for free ultimately paid off for the group. They ended up making $1,600,000 from fan donations, merchandise profits, and more, all beginning with their P2P experiment.

Is Torrenting Legal?

Though some countries have specific exceptions, downloading copyrighted content using a P2P network isn’t legal. Keep in mind that the act of sharing digital files is legal. We can say the same about the underlying technologies such as BitTorrent. What we mean is that there may be civil issues associated with sharing copyrighted materials.

Ever since P2P protocols were released, there has been discussion about how they can be conducive to online piracy. 

Copyright violation logo

The first big controversy about sharing copyrighted content was the Napster scandal. If you don’t know about it, Napster was brought down in a California federal court with a lawsuit filed by legendary rock band Metallica in the year 2000. 

Regarding torrent users, the MPAA and the RIAA are the two groups that have fought the hardest against those who downloaded copyrighted material.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)

In addition to setting ratings in the United States for certain movies, the MPAA is essentially a movie creators’ union representing the common interests of those in the industry.

One of those interests happens to be retaining studios’ intellectual property rights. The MPAA has gone after those who upload and download files containing their copyrighted content. Unfortunately, these lawsuits are expensive for the average person.

They’ve been slower than the RIAA on backing down on individual users. But their string of lawsuits against “casual pirates” has gone down considerably. 

Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)

This group represents musicians and music studios. They’re notorious for filing countless lawsuits against people for pirating even single songs without permission. After making too many headlines, the group has relaxed its stance.

Nonetheless, they continue to monitor torrent swarms and record IP addresses found to be engaging in piracy.

Joint MPAA/RIAA Efforts

These two groups have teamed up to take down websites dedicated to piracy. Now, they’re not going after individual BitTorrent users nearly as much as they used to. But they’re heavily attacking file lockers and sites known to link to copyrighted media.

Megaupload is one of the most famous examples. Though the site didn’t upload music itself, it hosted many pirated MP3 files. This situation led to a huge court battle. And while a Virginia-based federal judge blocked MPAA/RIAA’s attempt to get users’ information, they did manage to get the site closed.

Desperate user because of closed torrent site

Disadvantages of Torrenting

Even though there are many positive uses and advantages of BitTorrent, it has some disadvantages.

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, so that you can 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. 

From time to time, a virus may be hiding 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.

Wrapping Up

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

Unfortunately, many people associate torrenting with sharing copyrighted property without its creators’ permission. Though this does occur, P2P has many other legal uses.

Security issues persist with P2P technology because it wasn’t initially created to mask users’ identities. However, with a few preventive measures and some common sense, most will be fine taking advantage of the technology.