Listen to the audio version of this essay here.
(Quick note: this newsletter is not encouraging you to do anything. It is informational only, as you will note from my very purposeful language.)
Dear privacy seekers
Torrenting. The word typically conjures fear, confusion, or loathing to whomever hears it, and yet it should conjure none of these things. Torrenting is simply a digital technology that allows files to be broken apart and then shared between people in a very efficient and decentralized way. Sounds simple, right? And, after all don’t we all share files by the millions every day?
Of course the real controversy surrounding torrenting involves the sharing of copyrighted files to someone who has not paid for that file. And yes, I’m going to be defending that practice, so buckle up. I first want to begin by explaining what torrents are and why you should be interested in them as a privacy and freedom seeker. We will then discuss how to use them and, finally, their moral and legal status. Hint: they are entirely moral.
The sharing of files from computer to computer has always been the main mission of the Internet. In fact, that’s essentially what the Internet is. But the early Internet was not built for sending large files. So the technology of file sharing eventually evolved into torrenting, which helped the process along greatly. Torrenting is very efficient and the process is fascinating; we all owe a debt of gratitude to people such as Bram Cohen for inventing it. Here’s how it works. First, someone who owns a file on their own personal computer chooses to share that file with others. He turns it into a torrent file using a torrenting client. This torrenting client breaks the file down into small bits and produces a digital manual for reassembling it. This manual is called a torrent and is what you find on torrenting websites. Next, this person—the original seeder—makes sure that this file is available for a few days or weeks to be shared from his computer to the public. Now anyone can download it, piece by piece, and at their own convenience. Once enough people have it on their computers they can share it to yet others and a critical mass might be reached. Assuming that enough people keep uploading this file instead of deleting it, the torrent can become self-sustaining—all while defying any central database. This is torrenting in a nutshell.
Okay, so why would someone get involved in torrenting? Because it’s fast, it defies censorship from central authorities, and it allows you to acquire something without attaching personal information to a transaction.
First, speed. Many people torrent legal files because it can be quicker than downloading from central servers depending on various factors. This might not be relevant for parts of the world with strong Internet connections, but for places where the Internet is slow—which includes the majority of the planet—torrenting can be a life-saver. And by not having a single origin the possibility of bottlenecking is greatly diminished. Anyone who has downloaded a popular computer game as soon as it has been released on Steam knows how much of a strain downloading from a central database can be, even for companies with huge server farms like Valve.
Second, decentralization. Torrenting involves the direct sharing of files from one person to another—it is nearly censor proof. I say nearly because the main problem has been the websites that host the torrent files themselves, which you’ll recall are simply the digital manuals for finding and assembling the actual file on a peer’s computer. So they’re a small but crucial component, and when they get a lot of attention countries can have those websites forcefully taken down. There are ways around this, though, and increasingly its becoming possible to find torrents without appealing to a websites that is not decentralized itself.
Not afraid of censorship? Then I guess you don’t live in one of the hundreds of countries that block services, marketplaces, and products. Even Doctor Seuss books were delisted in 2021 for supposedly being racist—an accusation that came from the publisher! Suffice it to say that as this act of twenty-first century book burning commenced, people came out of the woodwork to snap them up on torrents. It turns out that people tend not to like being told what to do. Similarly—and I could spend hours listing examples of censorship even in supposed free speech countries—when the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooter from New Zealand released his manifesto, the New Zealand government made it illegal—i.e. they were willing to kill you—for owning it. Punishable by 10 years for being in possession of it and 14 years for distributing it. It was taken down pretty quickly online, as you might imagine, but of course could be found online via, you guessed it: torrents. And while I have no interest in reading such things, I can think of practical reasons to understand what is in it—you might want to know what motivated a mass murderer—and more importantly, when the government bans something, you should be very interested in what it is. So if you think we’re beyond censorship in the twenty first century, it’s time to wake up.
Finally, privacy. There are obviously things to do to ensure your torrenting is private—which we will discuss momentarily—but assuming one has taken precautions, one who torrents has acquired a good without revealing personal information. As goods increasingly become digital only, or only reasonably accessible online, we find ourselves pulling out a bank card regularly to buy something. This banking card dossier, as I note in my book and which should be common knowledge now, is a full record of your history for banks and governments to snoop on. Imagine a court order that grants police the right to force you to give over your Amazon history. And imagine as a snake-tongued lawyer reveals your book about 3D gun printing to the emotionally-driven jury about to decide your fate.
Torrenting is one of the truly beautiful digital architectures that has the power to change the world: and already is. Bitcoin and other Blockchains of cryptocurrencies use a similar concept, that of peer-to-peer sharing at least, which is what makes them decentralized, highly efficiently, and resilient to tampering. To speak out against the entire concept of torrenting with a blank statement is to show your ignorance and to disbelieve in arguably the most transformative technology for freedom—and indeed for privacy.
How to Torrent
Not all things online need be acquired via torrenting. There are hundreds of websites right now with centralized content that can get you access to free live sporting events, free ebooks, free academic papers, free music, and all the rest. Suffice it to say that people who have been ejected from the banking system—one thinks of Edward Snowden—could do just fine on their own. I’m not going to tell you what these sites are. But knowing this fact is power and will allow one to research on their own.
Now to torrenting. Again, I won’t tell you the specific websites of torrenting repositories, but if one were to view an article by a news website that discusses torrents, one would find a list of the most popular ones.
Let’s establish one thing before proceeding: using a VPN. A reputable virtual private network that does not log IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY before one starts to visit these kinds of sites. A reputable VPN blocks your Internet Service Provider from seeing what you are up to, and is the first way to avoid being caught for downloading something that is not allowed to be downloaded. Also note that not all VPNs are accepting of torrenting and some require one to torrent on particular servers. You can visit a torrent news website that has interviewed VPN companies about their torrenting policies to get a read on which companies are accepting of torrents, and which are not. A wise person would avoid a VPN company that says things like they do not condone torrenting.
VPNs used for torrenting should always have kill switch enabled, which means if they shut down for whatever reason the entire Internet connection is stopped, thus preventing any leakage. One might go further to protect oneself, either researching how to install a VPN at the router level—particularly using PfSense software—or by learning how to use a protocol called OpenVPN, which establishes a more reliable connection to a VPN than using that VPNs standard desktop application. Make sure to understand any technology you use before you rely on it.
Furthermore, one should be cautious about visiting sites that offer free goods while using weak operating systems such as Windows. If you haven’t yet switched to Linux, it would behoove you to download it on your computer: as a virtual machine with VirtualBox, as a dual-booting option, or on a laptop lying around collecting dust. Do this before you start exploring these new worlds. And even then, be smart. Even in the world of free online goods you can still find reputable places. Look for an absence of ads and junk. Look for a rating system. Look for reputable users with a history. Ask around the Internet to see if others have detected problems with a particular site. Note that file types such as .exe files and .rar files—as well as others—can be more prone to malware, since when they are open they run programs on your system. Such files are to be avoided as much as possible. Use wisdom, use Linux, and take time to learn and research.
As for the mechanics, let’s start by downloading a torrenting client. There are a lot of options out there and everyone has their preference and argument for it. Good programs come and go, so you would be wise to do your own research whether you’re listening to this podcast today on September 17, 2021 or at a later time. As of right now the program qBittorrent—notice the q at the beginning—is a solid open-source torrenting client that will definitely get the job done. It’s just a matter of visiting the website and downloading.
Now to put it to use. We’ll use an example of a fully legal torrenting file such as one that I advocate: the ISO file for Linux Mint, which is the operating system that I recommend to replace Windows and MacOS. You visit LinuxMint.com and go to the “Downloads” section, choosing the “Cinnamon” desktop version for our example. You’ll be brought to a page with a huge list of download mirror locations. These, however, are not torrents, but the centralized server downloads that you are used to seeing and using. We’re trying to avoid centralized servers, so scroll up to the top and click the “Torrent Download” link. Select your torrent client to open it, and, well, there you go. Now if anyone is seeding the file it should go to 100%, and which point you can use the file. You can explore your torrenting client, change the download location, limit the upload and download bandwidth, and start to learn about some of the advanced features in due time. Congratulations. You now have at your fingertips one of the most powerful weapons in your digital arsenal.
In conclusion let’s talk about legality and morality. First of all let’s acknowledge that there are two types of torrenting: the torrenting of files that are copyrighted and files that are not. Non-copyrighted files such as Linux Mint are always perfectly legal and moral to use, and in fact can be of great benefit to a company. For example, instead of bogging down Linux Mint’s servers by downloading a huge operating system file from their website, you can torrent that file and spread the load across your peers. Smaller volunteer organizations like Linux distributions benefit greatly from torrents, since they do not have the money to pay for large server space. Torrenting for them is possibly the difference between successfully getting out their software and not.
Torrenting is used for non-copyrighted files in other ways, as well, but let’s get to the real controversy: that of torrenting copyrighted files. While the legal status of torrenting varies by country and jurisdiction, everywhere it is morally permissible. Yes, the torrenting of copyrighted files is morally permissible. Let’s use my favorite example. John owns the Blu Ray collection of Game of Thrones Season 5. Sarah does not, but she wants to watch it. She asks John to borrow it and John obliges. This is essentially the moral equivalent of torrenting. Frankly, I’ve never heard an adequate rebuttal to this argument, so I’m going to leave it at that.
But, you might say, don’t people and companies deserve to be compensated for their work? Of course. So if you’ve ever borrowed a shovel from your neighbor, or watched a video game over the shoulder of the person next to you on an aeroplane, or doubled up on your sister’s Netflix account, you should stop listening to the podcast right now and go compensate all of these companies for what you gained from them. I’m being a bit facetious here, but the logic checks out. The right thing to do if one torrents a copyrighted file and receives value from it is to go and buy that thing or otherwise find some way to pass along some money to the creators of it. And many torrentors do exactly that.
A lot of creators look at torrent counts of their creations and say: “My movie was torrented 50,000 times. That is 50,000 sales that I have lost.” That is patently false. Those 50,000 people include many who would not be willing or able to pay for it. Perhaps they don’t have money, perhaps they live in a country like India or Russia where they don’t have access to easy international markets. Perhaps they were going to borrow from a friend from the very beginning. Or perhaps they are trying out the item to see if they like it, kind of like reading the first chapter of a book at a bookstore before pulling the trigger. Indeed, many companies have thanked torrenting because it helps to spread the word about their creation.
So not all torrenting is created equal. But yes, there are people who do have the means to buy something but instead torrent the copyrighted file. Are these people thieves? Once again, they’re not, but let me go further and get more philosophical. Let’s put torrenting aside and say that someone takes a copy of a file from me directly. Let’s say I sell a PDF copy of The Watchman Guide to Privacy on my website. Someone finds a way around the shopping cart feature and downloads the file directly. Has this person stolen anything from me? Let me check my pockets. No, I’m not missing anything. Maybe they have harmed me by infiltrating my website in some way—then again maybe not. This is a digital file and it can have unlimited copies. You cannot steal a digital file.
That’s not to say that I am going to make it easy for torrentors or people who would spread my guide around the Internet. Nor is selling a file that someone else created a morally good thing to do. I believe I deserve compensation for what I think is a really helpful guide, and if you’re listening to this and have acquired a copy of my guide that you didn’t pay for, consider paying me back in some way—if not now, then later.
But here’s the crux of the matter: banning torrenting is the equivalent of saying that you want to prohibit what others can do with a file that they have on their own computer. You don’t have a right to do that.
I know this episode will upset some people who get angered by torrenting, and frankly, I hope these people wake up. If you advocate the banning of torrents not only are you advocating for the banning of Linux operating systems, other freeware, and the only meaningful way for billions of people on earth to get access to content. You’re also suggesting that I cannot give to someone else a file that exists on my computer. Frankly that is absurd, coercive, and likely goes against any anti-authoritarian message that you stand for.
So much for the immorality of torrenting. Of course, the police in your jurisdiction might disagree, and, as Voltaire once said, it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong. Make yourself aware of the laws in your jurisdiction.
Of course, statistics of usage do not make anything more or less moral or legal, but they can give one perspective. For example, in the United States during census time every ten years citizens are given papers saying that the census is mandatory and that they can be prosecuted for not filling it out. That’s true, but what’s also true is that a huge percentage of Americans—tens of millions if not hundreds of millions—never fill out a census form. It’s also true that the last person to be prosecuted for not filling out a census form was decades ago. It’s similar with torrenting. It’s estimated that hundreds of millions of people use torrents. And this despite the fact that it is illegal in many of these places. Very few of them ever get into any trouble. In places like India and Russia and other parts of the world with slow Internet connections and no access to international markets, torrenting is simply the norm. It’s vital. For the rest of us, knowing how to acquire goods that don’t get one marked down in the Big Brother financial systems that scar our world is one of the most substantial privacy powers one can have. Remember: torrents, even where they are illegal, are always moral.
Yours in peace and privacy,