What are BitTorrent downloads and how do they work?

BitTorrent or torrenting, a unique kind of peer-to-peer file sharing, is as popular in 2019 as it was at its inception. For over a decade, people have used torrenting to download movies, music and more.

But what is torrenting? How does it work? The language around torrents can get pretty technical, so we’ll try to break it down to make more sense.

First, let’s examine what a torrent actually is.

What is a torrent?

what are bittorrents Gustas Brazaitis/Unsplash

A torrent is a file format that holds data about other, smaller files and folders related to something you want to download. For example, a music torrent has a bunch of information that tells your computer where to go to download that music. These files and folders are “packets.”

When you download a torrent, computers that are downloading the same torrent as you share packets. Packets are on their own servers. Users that have all the packets for a given download—a full copy of what you’re looking to download—are “seeders.” Seeders stay connected to the network even after they’ve completed their download to let other users download the packets.

The peer-to-peer nature of torrenting means your fellow downloaders, or “leechers,” download different parts of the torrent at different times. This allows each leecher to act as a sort of mini-server—uploading and downloading the packets simultaneously—which distributes the network load more evenly. Thus, multiple people can download the same file at the same time.

This all seems well and good, but does torrenting put you or your computer at risk?

BitTorrent download risks

bittorrent risks John Schnobrich/Unsplash

Viruses

BitTorrenting has been around for a while, so the torrent community has had plenty of time to make the process safer. Having to download from a network of leechers greatly minimizes the risk of you inadvertently downloading malware. Also, most reputable BitTorrenting sites encourage users to indicate whether or not any given torrent is safe. Lastly, if a you can see that a torrent has a ton of downloads or seeders, it’s probably safe to assume it’s virus-free.

Legality

Despite their reputation, torrents aren’t always against the law. Virtually anything can be made into a torrent file to facilitate widespread, easy downloading. However, it’s safe to say many people use BitTorrenting illegally, whether to download the latest Marvel movie or to save money on college textbooks. Obviously, downloading copyrighted material can get you in trouble, most often in the form of a lawsuit.

How to download torrents

how to download torrents Elliott Plack/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Though they’re not necessary for torrenting, let’s chat for a second about VPNs. A virtual private network may benefit you, depending on your preferred level of internet privacy. A VPN encrypts your internet connection to let you surf the net anonymously and securely. Additionally, VPNs offer other perks, so downloading one can also help you in the long run.

Once you have a handle on the technical aspects and have a VPN (if desired), it’s time to start torrenting. First, you’ll need to download software that can connect to seeders and leechers. This kind of program is called a “client.” There are several popular, easy-to-use clients around.

After downloading the proper software, choose a safe BitTorrenting site and search for the name of the file you want. You may have to jump around a bit, depending on how rare the file is. Once your site yields some search results, choose a torrent that has a decent amount of both seeders and leechers—this means the file is “healthy.” Scan through the comments to make sure you won’t be downloading malware. Lastly, click “get this torrent” and voilà! You’ve got your file!

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Anna Maria Ward

Anna Maria Ward

Anna Maria Ward is the social media editor of the Daily Dot. Her work focuses on the intersections of entertainment, pop culture, and social justice. She previously contributed to the Houston Chronicle and Orange magazine.