Scitech | Downloading on the down low

A look at the logistics and legality of torrenting

Torrenting is the most commonly used method of online file sharing. At any given moment, there are more active torrent users than Facebook viewers. Many of us do it at least occasionally. Whether it’s to download TV shows, music, movies, games, or even textbooks, it is difficult to resist the temptation of downloading digital media for free.

But how many of us truly understand how torrenting works? I consider myself to be knoweldgeable about computers. But before conducting research for this article, I, too, did not know how torrenting worked, only how to use it. How many of us are aware of the potential consequences concerning the use of torrents or the more general use of peer-to-peer software in Canada? Why is it that so many of us have no qualms about downloading a CD for free, and yet feel that stealing that same CD from a store is immoral?

In layman’s terms, torrenting can be described as your computer asking other computers to upload chunks of data to it. Computers that are sharing data with your computer are called seeds, or peers if they are also downloading, while your computer is known as a leecher. Seeds and peers must first have the torrent file that is associated with the data and also be a torrenting client. The torrent itself contains no part of the file that you want to download. Your computer only receives the file when you open the torrent, which means that you are asking other seeds or peers to send chunks of the file to your computer. Popular files with lots of seeds can be downloaded at very high speeds, while more obscure files could take much longer. A tracker keeps track of how much each computer uploads and controls the speed at which it is able to download based on that. Computers that upload at a higher rate also download at a higher rate and vice versa. This way, torrenting becomes a data trading system in which users are encouraged to share what they have so that it is easier for them to receive what they don’t.

All of this makes torrenting quite unpopular with companies that produce digital media. According to Pierre-Emmanuel Moyse, a professor in McGill’s Faculty of Law, almost all aspects of torrenting and file sharing in general are currently illegal in Canada. “None of the activities (in torrenting) are authorized, with few (possible) exceptions,” says Moyse. “However, the law makes it generally impossible to prosecute those responsible for file sharing.”

Indeed, while copyright law does prohibit file sharing, privacy laws protect the identities of file sharers. This may soon change, to the chagrin of college students everywhere. “There is bill, waiting to be passed, which would reform the law to allow media companies to pursue legal action against those who run torrent networks as well as those who participate,” added Moyse. Although the extent to which this will reduce the use of torrents is unclear, Canadians may not be able to share files online with complete impunity for much longer.

This brings us back to the question: is it ethical for us to share files with one another? How different is file sharing from stealing?

A very informal survey of my friends revealed some common lines of thought. Some people have said that it would be unfair to have to buy a product without first knowing if it will be worth it, while many people justify file sharing by saying that people in the entertainment industry already make more than enough money. Furthermore, the additional exposure brought on by torrenting could translate into even more profits later. Although these arguments neglect those artists who are less well-established, popularity and the extent of torrenting activity are directly proportional: the works of those who are already popular will be easier to download, while you would be hard pressed to find torrents for obscure indie bands.

While all of these justifications are logical, the fact remains that file sharing is stealing. Most of us will never see the detrimental effects that this has on the creators of what we download. There are many artists that will not benefit from an increase in popularity, whether it’s because they are behind the scenes or because there will not be additional opportunities to make money.

Despite these facts, I do not think torrenting will stop, or even decrease. Ultimately, the ability to obtain desired goods for free, with little to no risk, is too alluring. Nobody is torrenting to help make artists more popular – a few might be doing it to stick it to big corporations, but most people are probably doing it because it saves money. I think that this is indicative of the innate selfishness in our nature, but I’ll let the philosophy students debate that one.


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