Torrenting is the act of downloading and uploading files through a file-sharing, peer-to-peer network (P2P network) that uses the BitTorrent protocol. As BitTorrent clients, popular torrent sites like Transmission, utorrent, qBitTorrent, and Vuze make it possible for internet users to rapidly download large files from other internet users without using a lot of bandwidth. Torrent websites are a major source of piracy, as they make it easy to share copyrighted content illegally.
Read on to learn more.
How Torrenting Works
To best understand the appeal of torrenting to torrent users, it’s important to consider how more traditional file downloading works.
Centralized Downloading (a.k.a. Non-Torrenting)
In a non-peer-to-peer file sharing setting, when an internet user clicks on a link to download a file, the following happens:
- The browser you’re using (also called the client) communicates with the central server (the computer on which the web page and file you’d like to download are stored) and tells it to send a copy of the file you’ve requested to your computer.
- This transfer then happens via a protocol, or specific set of rules such as HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) or FTP (File Transfer Protocol).
- The speed of transfer depends on a variety of factors: the traffic on the server at the time of the request, the particular protocol being used, how many other computers are also requesting a copy of the file at the same time, etc.
Decentralized Downloading (a.k.a. Torrenting)
Rather than downloading files from a single server as described above, torrenting speeds up the downloading process by gathering pieces of the file you’ve requested from different computers across the P2P network. Here’s how that works:
- Via a torrenting client, a “tracker”, or torrent file, “tracks” where on the torrent network files are located.
- When a file is requested (e.g. a movie, book, game, TV show, etc.), the torrenting client connects those downloading the files (also called leechers because they “leech” files via a torrent file or magnet link from others) to the ones uploading the files (also called seeders because they provide the “seeds” that will make up the downloaded file as a whole). These seeders and leechers and the protocol the torrent client follows is what makes up the P2P network.
- The individual pieces of the file — because they aren’t coming from a single, central server — are very quickly downloaded.
Is Torrenting Legal?
That depends. Generally speaking, sharing files across an internet connection is legal, so long as the files being shared aren’t themselves illegal and/or copyright law isn’t being violated. To ensure that copyright law isn’t being violated, the files being shared must be in the public domain or the person sharing them must be the copyright holder.
For many, gaining free access to copyrighted material — or other expressly illegal content — is the appeal of torrenting. However, legal trouble is becoming more common for those who are torrenting illegal content, as internet service providers (ISPs) and copyright trolls get more and more aggressive in tracking down and prosecuting illegal torrents.
While it’s possible to mask online activity through a virtual private network or VPN, to truly torrent safely, only safe, legal torrent sites should be utilized and only legal files should be uploaded and downloaded.
Are Torrents Safe?
Torrenting can be a good way to get large files very quickly, but it’s also a way people share stolen content. Often that stolen content can also contain malware, bloatware, and other undesirable “extras”.
Imagine someone downloads a movie from a shady site. They may or may not be aware they are downloading small pieces of that movie from many different people. And all those small files fit together to make up the whole film. Then, they may end up sharing small files with anyone who wants it in the future.
Legal torrenting can be a good way to get large legitimate files, but it’s also a way that people share stolen content. And it’s a way for cybercriminals and hackers to sneak malware onto your computer.
The best way to protect yourself from the risks of pirated content, including malware and the threat of prosecution due to illegal torrenting activity, is to keep your cybersecurity and antivirus software up to date, protect your passwords, and avoid websites and streaming services that offer pirated content.
Interested in learning more?
Learn more about torrenting and digital piracy on our FAQs page.
Find free and safe movie streaming options on our Where to Watch page.