If you were using the Internet before the age of streaming sites, then you’re probably aware of what torrents are. You may have visited a torrent site to download a ripped movie, music album, or video game before (although we don’t recommend it) or have heard of people using one. This article touches on what torrenting is and how torrents work.


What Is a Torrent?

A torrent is a file shared through a decentralized, peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing network. P2P file sharing allows users to exchange files without uploading them to a server. The term may also refer to the file name extension or metadata that tells trackers—programs that coordinate the transfer of torrents—where to get torrent files.

What Is Torrenting?

Torrenting is the process of uploading or downloading the components that make up a torrent file from several peers or computers. The shared nature of torrenting makes the process faster than uploading or downloading a large file onto a central server. Why?

Torrenting doesn’t rely on how fast the central server is. Instead, it splits a large file into more manageable components, specifically smaller bits, for transmission to and from multiple computers. The larger the number of peers available for file transfer, the faster torrenting gets.

How Does Torrenting Work? 

Torrenting doesn’t depend on a centralized server for storing files. Instead, bits of data from individual large files are saved in participating computers (peers) in a network (swarm) to facilitate the file-sharing process. A P2P communication protocol like BitTorrent breaks down the files into pieces and moves them from uploaders (seeders) to downloaders (leechers) via a torrent client (a separate program that reads all the information in the .torrent file and connects users to exchange data).

A system of checks and balances described below is applied to make the torrenting process somewhat foolproof.

  • A torrent file (.torrent) contains information telling users which computers are part of the file-sharing process. It may also provide some details on the files and folders that a user is downloading.
  • The torrent client connects to a tracker, which holds the IP addresses of the devices in a swarm. The tracker forwards the IP addresses to all torrent clients to ensure all peers are connected.
  • The torrent client starts the download. Once it receives sufficient bits of data, it also begins to upload the file for the benefit of other users.

What Is BitTorrent?

We mentioned BitTorrent above but what is it, exactly?

BitTorrent is a P2P sharing protocol, meaning all torrent clients use it to enable the uploading, sharing, and downloading of torrent files. It was designed by Bram Cohen in April 2001. He also used it as the name of the first torrent client made publicly available on 2 July 2001.

Today, BitTorrent (the client) remains the most popular torrent client among users worldwide, more than 2 billion to date.

Is Using BitTorrent Illegal?

Using BitTorrent isn’t illegal. In fact, several legitimate companies use it, including Netflix, Meta, Google, Twitter, and Lionsgate.

The rule of thumb is, so long as you’re not sharing files obtained illegally or files that don’t belong to you via BitTorrent, it isn’t unlawful. We’ll discuss the legality of downloading any kind of torrent file in another section.

Is Using BitTorrent Safe?

As a protocol for transferring files between users over the Internet, BitTorrent is a safe technology. However, some files shared via BitTorrent may be unsafe. For example, some torrents may contain malware, such as viruses, worms, and Trojans. Others may contain copyrighted content.

What Are the Good Uses of Torrents?

While torrent sites have become a hub for digital pirates and infringers, they can be useful for syncing large chunks of files and sharing media you own the rights to. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, in fact, use a similar protocol to upload large files to their servers to conserve bandwidth. A torrent client may also be integrated into a game to deploy software updates, as in Starcraft’s case. Some government agencies also use torrents to share large images and documents to the public that could otherwise put a strain on their servers.

Is Torrenting Illegal?

The short answer is no. The act of sharing files via torrent sites is not illegal in itself. It only becomes illegal when a user uploads or downloads copyrighted material through a torrent client or website.

Are Torrent Files Safe to Download?

Generally speaking, most torrents are relatively safe to download—as long as you know where they’re from. Besides, malicious actors attempting to change torrent metadata would effectively corrupt its corresponding file, rendering it useless.

However, malware-ridden torrent files are incredibly widespread, too, and are often linked to pirated copies of TV show episodes. Torrent users also need to watch out for executable (.exe) or batch files (.bat) as these are commonly associated with scripts that install malware into computers.

What Is a Torrent Tracker?

A torrent tracker is a server that helps users communicate with other peers faster by monitoring which peer machines keep specific files. It works like Tinder and other dating apps that match users based on the preferences they input. When two people decide to meet in person or communicate through another platform, they can do so without Tinder.

Similarly, when a torrent user requests a specific file, the torrent tracker connects him or her to the appropriate peer machine. Once the P2P download has started, the connection to the tracker is no longer necessary.

What Is the Difference between a Private and a Public Tracker?

What Is a Public Tracker?

A public tracker, as the name suggests, is open to anyone and typically has a large user base. Any person can download a shared file from such a site even if he/she isn’t a registered user or currently logged into the tracker site.

What Is a Private Tracker?

Private trackers, on the other hand, can only be accessed by registered users who are vetted for trustworthiness (meaning they aren’t online pirates or share copyrighted materials) before being granted membership.

What Is the Difference between the Two?

Given the difference between a public and private tracker’s user base, downloads from public trackers may be slower, especially if a popular file is being downloaded by many users at the same time.

Also because private trackers have fewer users, its members may be required to upload files more often than public tracker users.

The following table sums up the differences between the two.

comparison of public vs. private tracker in torrenting

What Is a Seedbox?

A seedbox is a dedicated server found in a high-speed datacenter. It has a public IP address so anyone can download and seed torrent files on their computers anytime and from anywhere so long as they are connected to the Internet.

All sites that host torrent files use a seedbox if they want to speed up uploading and downloading trackers—both public and private trackers. A seedbox typically offers speeds between 10 and 100Mbps. Users can pay for a seedbox subscription monthly or annually.

How to Use Torrents

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to use torrents.

Step 1: Choose and Download a Torrent Client

Before you can start sharing or downloading files, you need to choose and install a torrent client. Choose carefully, as some come with adware that can cause issues with your computer or device. Best to download directly from the client’s website so you can avoid downloading malware from third-party sites. While there are free-for-download clients, going for a premium client is ideal if you want security features.

Step 2: Install a Tracker Site

Once you’ve installed a torrent client, you need also to download a tracker site, which contains listings of torrent files. They are only a repository for torrent files and do not host content on their servers. 

There are two types of tracker sites. One is a public tracker site, accessible to all users. The other is a private tracker site, which contains specialized torrent websites that host unique niches of files. Registration to a private tracker site is often exclusive and by invite only. It also requires users to seed torrents after each download.

Step 3: Search Content for Download

Next, you can search for the content you want to download. Search results often return several files, choose the ones with many seeders so your download goes faster. Before downloading, check if you can run the file.

Step 4: Download the Content

Once you know if the file is compatible with your installed programs, you can start downloading the content. You can download multiple files but it is a good practice to prioritize your downloads.

Can You Go to Jail for Torrenting?

As we said earlier, torrenting per se is not illegal if done for non-copyrighted materials or content you have rights to.

Technically speaking, downloading and sharing copyrighted content is illegal. You can get caught by law enforcers and Internet service providers (ISPs), especially if you do not hide your IP address.

If you are found guilty of copyright infringement, you can get up to five years of imprisonment and pay as much as US$150,000 for each content. In addition, the copyright owner can also file charges against you, which means you have to pay for legal fees and other damages. If you think about it, you could have just paid for the material so you can use it legally.

What Are the Repercussions of Unlawful Torrenting?

Unlawful torrenting generally refers to sharing and downloading copyrighted materials, including music, movie, and TV series files. The repercussions of getting caught depend on the laws that cover you or the country where you performed the act.

In the U.S., at least three laws impose different fines and penalties on violators, namely:

  • Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA): Implemented in 1998, it updated the existing copyright law to include digital materials. It prohibits the creation and distribution of copyrighted materials electronically and punishes violators. First-time violators can be fined up to US$500,000  or up to five years in prison, while repeat offenders can be fined up to US$1,000,000 or up to 10 years in prison. This law also mandates Internet service providers (ISPs) and website owners who detect illegal files on their properties to take these down immediately.
  • No Electronic Theft (NET) Act: Implemented in 1997, it attempts to curb online piracy of music, video games, movies, and software. Individual offenders get a maximum fine of US$250,000 and five years in prison, while organizations can be fined US$500,000.
  • Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA): Implemented in 1986 and amended multiple times, it is now part of the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act. It punishes users who receive files obtained illegally (via hacking, especially from businesses). Offenders can get a minimum prison sentence of five years to life.

After discussing illegal torrenting, you may be wondering if the process has legal uses. It does and they include:

  • Updating and downloading games: Most large gaming companies use their own torrent client for game downloads. When you buy games from them, you essentially download a torrent client that does the rest of the work. When updates are made available, the client that’s built into the games automatically downloads them for you. Torrenting lets gaming companies save on bandwidth and offers players faster download speeds.
  • Social media file transfers: Facebook and Twitter engage in torrenting to move files around, which enhances user experience. The process allows thousands if not millions of users to access the sites at the same time.
  • Site archiving: Websites like the Wayback Machine require large amounts of storage. Torrenting lets its owner, nonprofit organization Internet Archive, preserve content and make it available for all users anytime.
  • Public file sharing: Governments like that of the U.K. share documents with their constituents as torrent files. That way, anyone interested can view them over the Internet. If you wish to share video or audio files you created (meaning you’re not violating copyright and trademark laws), you can do so with torrenting as well.
  • Faster automatic file syncing: Torrent clients like BitTorrent have an automated syncing feature that lets paying users share the latest copies of torrent files automatically to all connected users. This is only available for private trackers, though. Each time the shared torrent file gets updated, all its components get updated automatically, ensuring that all users always have the latest version.

There are other legal torrenting use cases but these are probably the most common.

Should I Use a VPN for Torrenting?

Virtual private networks (VPNs) hide your IP address from sites that want to track you. They also conceal your entire online activities from your Internet service provider (ISP). Using a VPN to download files from a torrent site can help you stay anonymous online, keeping you safe from cyber attackers.

Bear in mind that ISPs track VPN traffic, though, so keep your torrent use legal. Using VPNs is also illegal in some countries, so make sure your country is not on a list where VPNs are banned.

Torrenting without a VPN

When torrenting without a VPN, make sure to download torrents from trusted sites only and be careful about what files you download. As much as possible, scan all downloaded files for malware before opening them. Using a firewall to block incoming connections from unknown programs is also recommended when torrenting without a VPN.

How to Speed Up Torrenting

Several factors affect torrent speeds, but the most common is the number of seeds. Below are some tips that can help you speed up torrenting.

  • Choose torrents with high seed numbers to ensure fast download speed.
  • Avoid downloading multiple torrents simultaneously.
  • Make sure background programs are closed and do not take up bandwidth.
  • Download torrents late at night or during periods when there is low activity.
  • Use an Ethernet connection instead of Wi-Fi. 

How to Protect Yourself While Torrenting

Most torrent users connect to VPNs while torrenting to avoid getting tracked by their ISPs and other entities. But there are other concerns besides privacy. For one, several torrents may contain malware, so installing an antivirus program on your device is the best way to protect yourself. It’s also advisable to choose torrents correctly by reviewing comments and looking at the number of seeders.

Streaming versus Torrenting, What’s the Difference?

Streaming and torrenting are two different ways to access digital content.

Streaming involves watching or listening to content online as it gets delivered to your device. You do not need to download an entire file before you can start watching or listening to it. Streaming is a convenient way to access content, but it can be limited in terms of the quality and selection of available content.

Torrenting involves downloading a file from a P2P network. That means you are downloading a file from other users who have already downloaded it. Torrenting can be a slow process, but it allows you to download high-quality files and access content that may not be available on streaming services.

Key Takeaways

  • Torrenting refers to the process of exchanging files through a P2P network without having to upload them to a server.
  • When sharing files through torrenting, the files are split into smaller bits before being transmitted to and from multiple computers.
  • Torrent clients like BitTorrent facilitate the uploading and downloading of files.
  • Torrenting is useful when transmitting large files.
  • While torrenting is not against the law, it becomes illegal when sharing copyrighted materials or illegally obtained files.
  • Unlawful torrenting may have legal repercussions under DMCA, the NET Act, and CFAA.
  • Downloading torrent files is generally safe, but threat actors have been known to exploit them. It’s best to know where the files are from to avoid malware infection.

Is Torrenting Good or Bad?
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