Introduction to BitTorrent

Tech Talker explains BitTorrent, one of the most popular (and controversial) ways to share digital files online.

Eric Escobar
4-minute read
Episode #48


It seems that digital piracy is in the news constantly these days, yet many of us are still unclear on some of the concepts behind file sharing, and what makes it legal or illegal. In this episode, I’ll cover one of the main ways that files are shared online, known as BitTorrent..

What is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent is a protocol that was developed in 2001 to transfer large files easily across the internet. It’s an extremely efficient way to share files—here’s why:

Let’s take a brief look at how files are normally downloaded from the internet. If you were to go to QuickAndDirtyTips.com to download the latest Tech Talker podcast, you would click the link for the episode which would in turn access the Quick and Dirty Tips server, which would then transfer the file to your computer. Now this works fine for fairly small files. But what happens when you try to download an extremely large file, such as a movie, or when thousands of people are all trying to access the same file at the same time? A lot of people downloading a large file all at once will crash a web server pretty easily. This is where the BitTorrent protocol comes into play.

In the previous example, Quick and Dirty Tips’ server is the single source for the file. That means whenever you want to download the file, you would have to access that single source again and again. And if 10 million people wanted to do the same thing at the same time (or more likely, if a hacker planted a virus into 10 million computers and told them to download a file from a single source at the same time), this could very well lead to a server crash. Some speculate that this is exactly what caused GoDaddy.com to crash a little while back. But with BitTorrent, once someone downloads the file, they become a new source for the file. So if 50 people download the file, then that means there are 50 new sources from which others can download the same file.

So every computer that has the file now has the ability to share it with someone else. This is a pretty abstract concept, but thankfully the video at BitTorrent.com does a really good job explaining how this process works.

In a nutshell, BitTorrent is a very efficient way to share files because it doesn’t require a dedicated server to host a file. The file is hosted by peers, which is why it is called a peer-to-peer network, or P2P for short.

Why is BitTorrent Controversial?

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s nice, Tech Talker, now I know about online file sharing. But how does BitTorrent affect me? What’s the controversy?”

Good question!

Since BitTorrent makes it so easy to share large files without the need for a central server, what stops people from sharing copyrighted materials such as music and movies for free? Yep, exactly. This is a huge problem for the movie and music industry because people can rip a DVD or CD and share it with their friends for free, thereby slashing the entertainment industry’s profits!

So what do the music and movie industry do to combat this problem? Well, it’s pretty devious. They search for torrents that consist of copyrighted material and download the file. Once they do this, they receive a list of all of the other users who are also downloading that file. With this information, they can go to your internet service provider and submit proof of your violation. For a first time offense, you’ll probably just get a letter in the mail telling you to stop right away. But if you continue to download copyrighted material, the consequences will become more severe. You may have your internet shut off or even be charged in a lawsuit!

My advice is to never download copyrighted material, not just because it’s wrong, but because the file might be a piece of malware in disguise! We all know how destructive malware can be to a home computer system. (And if you don’t, check out my episode Anatomy of a Virus.)

So when you hear about torrents or BitTorrent, just keep in mind that torrenting itself and sharing files with BitTorrent is completely legal, as long as you are not sharing copyrighted material.

Recently the website ThePirateBay.se ran into legal trouble because it had links to millions of torrents, most of which contained copyrighted material. Essentially, you could go to ThePirateBay website, search for just about any movie, program, or album, and find a link to that file that would start the torrent. It was essentially a piracy-promoting enterprise. Click here to find out more about this story.

Now that you know what BitTorrent is and how it works, stay tuned for next week’s episode where I’ll cover how to use BitTorrent to optimize your downloading and share files legally.

Here are 3 Quick and Dirty Tips about BitTorrent:

  1. BitTorrent allows users to download large files from other peers instead of from a central server.

  2. Downloading and sharing large files is much faster and efficient with BitTorrent than with traditional file sharing techniques.

  3. Torrenting (or downloading via BitTorrent) is completely legal, as long as you aren’t downloading copyrighted material.

Want to test your tech smarts? Click here to take my new quiz!

Well, that’s it for today. Be sure to check out all my posts at techtalker.quickanddirtytips.com. And if you have further questions about this podcast or want to make a suggestion for a future episode, post your comments on the Tech Talker Facebook page.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Man on Computer and Pirate Mouse images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.