Do People Still Torrent?

Earlier today one of my Ubuntu torrents hit a ratio of 1000:1, meaning that I have transferred the equivalent of 1000 copies of the open source operating system to people around the world. I generally have a number of torrents running at any given time, and they're all different distributions and versions of Linux. The reason for this is pretty simple: I would like to help people obtain their copy of an installation disc as quickly as possible, and sharing Linux is pretty much the only legal use of BitTorrent in Japan. Yet when the notice popped up to let me know about the golden torrent ratio, I was disappointed that it took as long as it did. The file was completed on December 23rd of last year. Over the next 85 days I would upload the equivalent of 1,000 copies. It seems … unremarkable.

Chalkboard Downloading

BitTorrent was incredibly popular a little over a decade ago, with sites going up and being taken down with such regularity that it would sometimes be hard to find the latest episodes of a TV show or a decent-quality copy of a CD. Large trackers such as ThePirateBay and EZTV would regularly appear in newspaper articles, letting people new to the idea of downloading entertainment without paying for it know what to type into Google. While living in Vancouver, and for the first couple of years I lived in Japan, I would often make use of the nefarious sites to get the most recent episodes of The Simpsons, Futurama, and a myriad of interesting documentaries. These were programs that just weren't available in the country in any usable format without investing a great deal of money in shipping fees. Some time around 2012 the government passed a law that made it possible for ISPs to rat out their customers to various copyright holders. Within a few days of the law going into effect, some people were arrested to "send a message" and just about everyone I knew in the country who used torrents gave them up overnight.

But I kept going … albeit with the limit of sharing only open sourced Linux-based distributions.

Over time people moved on to Netflix and Hulu, or suffered with whatever could be found on YouTube. Talk of torrents almost completely disappeared, even online. Every now and again there will be a magnet link on someone's blog to download a presentation or a conference talk, but these are few and far between. It's as though the technology has been labelled "for criminals only". Maybe this is semi-accurate.

Over the decades that I've been online, file sharing has evolved quite a bit. I was first introduced to the concept in high school when people would download files from a BBS and share 3.5" floppy disks with friends. Then there were the ever-busy XDCC servers on IRC, where your connection had to do something in 10 seconds otherwise risk being considered "idle" and disconnected. Then came the FTPs (that were broadcast on IRC). Afterwards I joined an ISP that had newsgroups and I would spend hours downloading RAR files, testing partity with PAR files, and screaming at the screen when part 23 of 25 of the last segment in a 150-piece RAR file didn't appear in the listings, rendering the entire download pointless. Later came Napster, which changed my relationship with music, as it was now possible to listen to the artists that Canadian radio stations refused to play. Later, for those who didn't mind viruses, LimeWire and e-Mule were the places to trade just about anything on your computer, including personal finance databases1. And then, when it seemed that downloading an entire file from a single source was no longer the best option, BitTorrent came along.

This is where I stopped. I don't know what came next, if any superior technology superseded torrents at all. I'm not particularly interested in downloading TV shows, music, movies, or anything like that from random strangers anymore, either. Streaming services are generally quite reliable and priced competitively. Spotify gets $10 a month from me, and I subscribe to Netflix two months of every year2. If there are movies that I'd really like to see, there's a number of providers who'll make the video available for anywhere between one and five dollars. It doesn't make sense to pirate content when the commercial offerings are generally good enough, even for people in geo-restricted countries.

Of course there are still going to be people who cannot or will not pay for the digital files they seek. There's no getting around this. The pervasiveness of digital piracy seems to have diminished, but it will never go away. Do people still torrent? Most certainly. Is it widely used in the Linux community to share the various distributions? Oddly enough … no.

  1. I wasn't the only one to discover that a lot of people would just share everything on their C drive, including the full contents of their personal documents folder.

  2. This is generally long enough for me to catch up on anything I'd like to see, minus a few shows on Fox.