What is torrenting and what is the problem?
If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve probably come across the term “torrenting” and been warned not to. This may have made you wonder what torrenting is and what exactly is the problem.
In a word, it’s piracy. Torrents are the primary means by which copyrighted material is distributed to people who have not paid for it. Be it movies, TV shows or games, if it was stolen, you can get it from a torrent site. Let’s take a closer look at torrents and how they work.
What is torrenting?
Before we can talk about torrenting issues, we need to understand a little bit more about how it works. Normally, when you download a file, you send a request to a server and that server, usually operated by the company that runs the site you are downloading from, sends that file to you.
Torrenting is different in that it is a decentralized system. Instead of sending a request to a server when you click a download button, you instead download a small file called a tracker and open it with a dedicated BitTorrent client.
The tracker connects you to a group of other users (usually called a swarm), some of whom have the whole file, while others only have a small portion. When you download the file, you simultaneously download what you already have, which makes you both a downloader and a downloader.
People connected to the swarm who have the whole file are called seeders, while people who are still getting it are called leechers. The more seeders a swarm has, the faster the download will be, although having too many leechers can throw the balance off enough to slow down the process.
Decentralized vs Centralized
At its core, torrenting is a peer-to-peer (P2P) form of file downloading that does not rely on central servers but rather each member of a swarm to deliver a file. As such, it’s a great way to distribute files cheaply, and it’s used for all sorts of legal downloads, mostly for open source software.
Its downside is that it’s usually a bit slower than a direct download – although a healthy swarm is still quite fast – and it uses more bandwidth because you have to download and download. There’s also an unwritten rule that you have to seed for a while after getting the whole file, it’s just good manners.
Why use torrents for piracy?
Due to its decentralized nature, torrenting is ideal for distributing copyrighted material. If the files are kept on a single server, copyright watchdogs and law enforcement agencies can very easily attack that server. However, if you distribute those same files over a network, it is much more difficult to remove illegally hosted files.
About 20 years ago, if you wanted to download copyrighted material (often called warez), you could do so by direct download from music-oriented sites like Napster or Kazaa – pirating movies n wasn’t so important then. However, once the music industry caught wind of them, they were quickly shut down, Napster in early 2001 and Kazaa later that same year.
However, tackling a P2P system like torrenting is much more difficult, and battling the biggest site of them all is a good example. Since its founding in 2003, The Pirate Bay has never made a bone of it being used as a means of distributing copyrighted material. From the start, authorities in several countries came after the site and its founders, who ended up on trial in 2009 and went to jail until their release in 2015.
Between 2003 and now, however, you could still access The Pirate Bay through one of its many proxies and download warez. Indeed, the site itself is only a repository for trackers, the files are kept on the computers of seeders and leechers around the world. To stop even a single torrent, you need to stop every person seeding it, as well as most leeches.
That’s not to say you can access The Pirate Bay or similar sites with impunity. If you were to visit one of these sites now and start downloading the latest Hollywood blockbuster, you can expect to receive some kind of notice from your local copyright watchdog, threatening fines and lawsuits. legal action for content piracy.
In many (though far from all) countries, these watchdogs and authorities work together, keeping an eye on what comes in and goes out of torrent sites. The only way to avoid this surveillance is to use a virtual private network, a tool that helps hide your IP address and thus makes it almost impossible for you to be tracked when you visit these sites.
Still, even VPNs may not be enough to keep you safe in years to come, as major Hollywood studios are suing VPN providers in a bid to stop them from helping hackers. The days of high seas internet activity may be numbered.
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