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03.01.2013

Last week, we talked briefly about bandwidth usage at home. One of the things we mentioned was torrenting large files – which led a few people to ask whether we were condoning piracy. 

Torrenting itself has a bad name in some circles, and is often thought of as synonymous with piracy, but it’s not actually illegal. It’s just a way to download files effectively. What is illegal is using torrents to download copyrighted materials.

What is torrenting?

Torrenting also known as peer-to-peer networking, is a way to make downloading faster and reduce congestion on the network. In a traditional client-server set-up, a file is hosted on one server, and everyone who wants it has to download it from there. If there are a lot of people trying to get to a popular file, the server can easily become overloaded and may not be able to serve everyone.

To get around this, web admins often use mirror servers – several copies of the same file hosted in different places, so if one place is busy, you can try somewhere else. It’s basically like opening up an extra register in busy periods.

Peer-to-peer networking (P2P) opens things up further by allowing anyone who’s downloaded a file to pass it on to other people. You don’t have to go to the original source – you can get it from anyone else who’s already got it. A master register records who’s downloaded each file, and when you want something, it connects you to someone who can supply it. This takes a huge burden off the original servers, and makes it much easier for everyone to get the files they’re after. Everyone becomes part of the distribution network.

However, there’s a big technical drawback with simple P2P. If you’re downloading from someone’s home computer, they may have a really slow connection, so it could take a long time, and if they go offline for any reason, your download stops. Torrenting gets around this by splitting files up into lots of smaller pieces. When you want to download a file, you download the individual pieces from many different sources, and the torrent software recombines them. If one site goes offline or is slow, the torrent simply switches to somewhere else.

Torrenting is an effective way for companies to distribute large or popular files without putting stress on the original server or relying on a limited number of connections. It’s much easier to download a 5Gb file via a torrent than it is to download it from a single server. Torrents are used by over 250 million people, and there are numerous tools available, mostly free.

So do I need to worry about my kids torrenting things?

It entirely depends what they’re downloading.

Over 200,000 people have so far been sued for using torrents to download copyrighted materials (though that’s not the same as saying they were all convicted). If you or a minor in your household are downloading unlicensed movies, TV shows, games, software, books, or music, then you’re potentially at risk. 

However, don’t assume that simply because someone is using torrents, they’re breaking the law. Tools like Vuze provide legitimate torrent-based access to a lot of licensed content from around the world. Many content creators are happy to release their content for free and actively encourage file-sharing, and older content may be out of copyright. Some software can legally be downloaded via torrent as long as you purchase a license before using it. 

If you’re worried, check what they’re actually doing. Piracy is about content, not tools.


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