Torrenting & The Law: A Fascinating Technology Has Its Moment… Again

Torrenting was born in 2001 and pioneered a new way for people and companies to share files. It was relatively easy to use and – because it allowed for anyone to share or download albums and movies – it got popular VERY quickly. How popular? Well, in 2009, it was estimated that torrenting accounted for a mind-boggling 43% to 70% of all Internet traffic. Once Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Spotify and Apple made purchasing high-quality music and video easy, torrenting traffic plummeted.

However, the technology’s once again gaining popularity, so let’s explain what torrenting is, how it works, and the legal implications of using the technology.

What Is It?!

At its core, torrenting is a technology which allows people to share files. What makes it special is how the technology works. And, since explaining technology can be difficult, let’s instead use a metaphor that anyone can understand: pizza!

The Normal Way to Get a Pizza

If you want a pizza (and, of course, you do), you contact your local pizza parlor, order the pizza that you’d like and – within about an hour – your pizza is delivered to you. It’s a delightful, simple, and supremely delicious system that requires only three parties:

  1. You, the consumer of the pizza.
  2. The pizza parlor, the maker of the pizza.
  3. The transportation service, who delivers the pizza to your home.

This three-party system is also how most downloads from the Internet function. For example, let’s say you’re needing to download the latest Firefox web browser:

  1. You, the consumer, can download the software to use.
  2. Mozilla, the maker of the software, gives the public access to the software on their servers.
  3. The transportation service, who provides you access to the Internet, is your Internet Service Provider (or ISP).

It looks a bit like this:

Traditional file upload
Traditional file upload

Your ISP gives you access to the Internet. You contact Mozilla. They give you permission to download software from their servers. If that looks or sounds simple, it’s because – by design – it is!

However,  there are more creative ways to order a pizza…

The Complex Way to Get a Pizza

Let’s say that you’re ordering the same pizza. Only this time, 80 or 90 different pizza parlors will join forces to get you that pizza!

To make this happen, not only will each parlor make a pizza for you… but they’ll figure out – during the delivery – which parlor is responsible for which piece of your pizza!

Then, at the end of the delivery process, the pieces from each of those 80-90 different pizzas will be assembled at your home and — miracle of miracles — the finished product will look, smell, and taste exactly like a fresh, whole pizza!

This many-party-system is how torrenting works. If you’re needing to download the latest Firefox web browser via torrenting, then the file will be broken down into scores or even hundreds of individual pieces. Each individual piece is retrieved from a different computer or server (called a “seeder”) and brought to your computer.

Of course, the complexity of this operation requires a special kind of software called a BitTorrent application. These applications serve three, vital tasks:

  1. They find each individual piece of the download you need
  2. They fetch each piece of that download
  3. They assemble all of the various pieces together to create one, whole, and final product.

It looks a bit like this:

Downloading files via torrent
Downloading files via torrent

In this scenario, your ISP gives you access to the Internet. You use a BitTorrent application to seek the latest Firefox installer. Hundreds of individuals with personal computers just like yours all simultaneously share parts of their Firefox installer with you. It’s known as peer-to-peer file sharing or “P2P”.

If that looks or sounds complicated, it’s because – by design – it is! However, that complexity allows for some pretty amazing things to occur.

Why is Torrenting Important?

Efficiency

If you need to download a large file in the traditional manner then your download speed and time relies on three factors:

  • the speed of the server providing you the file;
  • the speed of the server’s Internet connection;
  • the speed of your Internet connection.

Torrenting leverages P2P file sharing, by using many computers or servers to share the same file. This design allows for tremendous efficiency over traditional downloads, especially on slower or restricted networks.

Having 20 or 200 different computers (or servers) helping to provide you a large file creates an advantage to traditional downloading. This is why companies like Facebook, Twitter, Blizzard Entertainment (makers of “World of Warcraft”, and others leverage the power of Torrenting.

It’s also why government agencies like NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – have also used Torrenting.

Exposure

If you’ve created a piece of artwork and want to quickly share it with the world, social media and video streaming platforms might suffice. But if you want people to be able to play, read, or watch your artwork on any of their own devices, then making it available via torrenting is a smart way to gain exposure and fans.

This is one of the reasons that the creators of various Linux OS builds — including Debian, Ubuntu, and others — provide their OS download via torrents.

Preservation

Given torrenting’s ability to distribute data, it’s fitting that one of the most venerable and important websites on the Internet – The Internet Archive – uses Torrenting. They use it to help preserve and share the Internet for future users and historians. Starting in 2012, the non-profit added sharing files via Torrenting to its other methods of data sharing.

Freedom

Torrenting harnesses the power of individuals who have their own computers and access to the Internet. It is, therefore, a powerful tool for citizens who live in countries whose government restricts access to certain information.

Countries with restricted and free internet access
Countries with restricted and free internet access

Some countries work very hard to restrict access to some or all parts of the Internet. If you live in one of these countries – as shown on the map above – then torrenting might be a valuable tool to gain access to the information that you seek.

Why is Torrenting Popular?

In the early 2000s, torrenting was very popular because the applications were free, easy-to-use, and they made it very easy for anyone to share or obtain copyrighted materials like movies, albums, artwork, and pornography.

Then, technology and the arts finally caught up with the demand.

Companies like Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon Prime and others began to provide digital video and music collections to customers around the world. As a result, torrenting traffic plummeted. Most consumers were willing to pay a reasonable fee to have easy access to a huge music or video library.

But then, just like the network TV model, those giant tech companies and their massive libraries became exclusive. If you want to watch Ted Lasso, you’ll need to purchase a subscription to Apple TV+; if you want to watch Bridgerton, you’ll need to purchase a subscription to Netflix; if you want to watch The Expanse, you’ll need to purchase a subscription to Amazon Prime.

Suddenly, consumers who wish to watch popular shows are now faced with having to subscribe to multiple services on top of the monthly fees they’re already paying to gain access to the Internet. And, since most people can’t afford those kinds of fees…torrenting is making a comeback.

One 2018 study – by the research company Sandvine – claims torrenting accounted for 21% of all upload traffic on the Internet. That’s a huge spike and probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

So let’s ask the obvious question…

Is Torrenting Legal?

Generally speaking, most all technologies — like torrenting — are all legal. However, the ways in which a technology can be used might certainly be illegal.

NASA and The Internet Archive, for example, use torrenting to share important or culturally significant files with the public. That’s a legal use of the torrenting technology. So, too, is sharing any non-copyrighted materials such as your own original works of art or any work of art which exists in the Public Domain.

Sometimes even famous works of art are in the Public Domain, such as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, written by L. Frank Baum. This makes it possible to legally share links to download and read this great work of fiction.

Using torrenting (or any technology) to share copyrighted material without permission is absolutely illegal. Copyrighted material includes any music, books, movies, images, or other artistic material that are not in the Public Domain.

In modern countries, the government works with Internet Server Providers (ISPs) to punish those who illegally distribute copyrighted material. In the United States, the fine for being caught sharing copyrighted material under The Copyright Act can cost up to $150,000 per infringement, so the stakes can be high.

While some government agencies can force ISPs to block torrenting websites, using a VPN can get around these restrictions. But don’t let that make you feel safe: you’re not. The NSA famously observed and even hacked torrenting technology in the early 2000s. Chances are… they’re still watching the technology now.

As always, surf safe!

Author: Nicolas Cuts

Product Managers at SwitcherryVPN. Have 5 years background in management and marketing. I never stop learning!

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