What are torrents?

The question ‘what are torrents’ can be answered quite simply, considering how complex these file sharing protocols are.

Friday, 5 January, 2024

Back in the thrilling, copyright-infringing days when peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing consumed much of the internet’s available bandwidth, torrents were all the rage.

Millions of households tied up their phone lines throughout the late 1990s and early Noughties, sharing and receiving files through utilities like Kazaa and Morpheus.

A method of file distribution known as torrents underpinned all these platforms. Despite their subsequent demise, torrents remain a significant part of online file transfers today.

But what are torrents? Why did they become so controversial? And how are they used now that the internet pirates of the Noughties have moved on or been locked up?

Getting the bit between your teeth

P2P file sharing rose to prominence as a way of circumventing increasingly extortionate RRPs for new music, movies and other mainstream media content.

This was clearly illegal, and endemic copyright infringement led to the high-profile collapse of torrent sites including Napster.

However, the technology underpinning torrents is entirely legal.

The BitTorrent protocol allows a device to download a .torrent file from multiple sources at once.

Rather than streaming a YouTube video from parent company Google’s servers, torrents tend to be accessed from multiple smaller and less powerful devices simultaneously.

If ten people all host a file you want to download over a torrent service, the download might come from any (or all) of them at any given moment.

Each host is known as a seed. If one seed drops out, others take on its burden. If one seed experiences a sudden drop in bandwidth, the torrent switches to faster alternatives.

As such, torrenting is useful for large files and/or slow connections, while it can also suspend and resume itself in response to interruptions.

Once you have part of a file on your own computer, your device becomes another seed in the network. Unless you’ve blocked uploads, other people can access this file from your device.

Uploads commence automatically, in response to other people searching for files you already have or are in the process of downloading.

Like streaming media files, you don’t need to wait for a streaming torrent to finish before accessing it, though this clearly only works for media files rather than programs or utilities.

It’s also worth noting that data may be shared as a .torrent file or its magnet link – the equivalent of using a unique URL to find a resource on the internet.

Files and their magnet links are listed on torrent indexes, which require the installation of compatible software known as a client.

Leading torrent providers include YTS, The Pirate Bay and 1337x. These are often free to install and use.

What are torrents’ main dangers?

In the wrong hands, a torrent can be turned into a hostile weapon.

Torrents may be infected with malware, or contain illegal content, such as files which haven’t been cleared for copyright.

Because data is hosted on individual devices, there’s less accountability about the quality of that content, with no host organisation ensuring it’s legitimate and malware-free.

It’s also hard to claim that you downloaded something unwittingly. In the absence of an industry-regulated host website, individuals are responsible for their own data actions.

Try to avoid downloading torrents from unknown sources; don’t access .exe files unless you actually need an executable program; run an antivirus scan on new files prior to opening them.

Finally, if anonymity is important, it’s advisable to download torrents through a VPN that has a zero-logging policy and a kill switch in the event of the VPN connection being lost.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!