Copyright? What Copyright? Your Guide to Bittorrent Software Security and Services
In this guide, I will briefly discuss the philosophy of peer-to-peer technologies, and review my favorite bittorrent clients and trackers, as well as a network security application called Peer Guardian. Read on if you're curious about bittorrent but have never tried it, or if you already use bittorrent but are concerned about privacy and security.
Bittorrent is a peer-to-peer Internet communications protocol that allows users to share very large files between one another. In contrast to the traditional top down server-client distribution model, which typically relies on several capacious servers with tons of bandwidth to send large files to users, peer-to-peer technologies like bittorrent allow users to share files between one another, usually without a centralized server. With bittorrent, particularly, the workload of a machine distributing a file decreases as more people download the file. This is because as the swarm sharing the file grows, the bandwidth, memory and processing power available to the swarm grows. In the above image, "your" computer is in the center, sending parts of the file that it already has to others, and receiving parts it doesn't. Green cylinders are "seeders," computers which have the complete file, and red cylinders are "leechers," those that don't have the full file. (For a good guide to bittorrent terms, see Azureus' wiki.)
For independent content producers, this new, decentralized distribution model has allowed them to reach broad audiences while still maintaining licensing rights to their work (they don't need to post it to sites like YouTube, which may then claim ownership rights). Such producers might not have the resources for servers and bandwidth necessary to distribute using the traditional model. Using bittorrent, shows such as Hometown Baghdad can be distributed to millions cheaply and without risk of being taken offline by a third party (YouTube) or state authorities who, in the traditional model, may need only shut down a single server to effectively halt distribution.
For big media, peer-to-peer technology has presented a clear threat to their market and cultural dominance. Decentralized distribution technologies and (arguably) plentiful bandwidth have created the infrastructure for a new mode of cultural production. In this new mode, users with access can easily share big media's content with one another free of charge, without permission from producers. The mere existence of this infrastructure has brought the effective cost of distribution to zero, and so users have little incentive to pay for media using the old model. For a fantastic discussion of this, seethis post on DEMONBABY.
Enough Philosophy: Bittorrent Clients
All the clients I cover are open source, with one noted exception.
- Vuze (Windows, OS X, Linux)
- Formerly known as Azureus, Vuze is an extensible, java-based, cross-platform client. It offers a tremendous array of features, including a plug-in framework and search engine that links to Vuze.com's own tracker filled with independent content. Use if you want to delve deep into the possibilities bittorrent offers. Stay away if you have limited system resources.
- µTorrent (Windows)
- Typically pronounced "you torrent" and easily Googled as "utorrent" even though it uses the Greek letter Mu, is not open source, but is smaller and less resource-intensive than other Windows bittorrent clients. Use if you don't care about the bells and whistles Vuze offers or if you're trying to run lightweight applications. Stay away if you need to see the source code.
- Transmission (OS X, Linux, *BSD)
- Being a member of the Mac cult, this is my personal favorite. Transmission is lightweight but offers everything I need in a client, including encryption support and automatic speed limits. Additionally, Transmission has a distinctly "Mac feel" to it, which other cult members will appreciate. Use if you want to keep it lightweight, if you're a new bittorrent user, or if you're tired of Vuze's cumbersome size. Stay away if you need control over every aspect of your torrents or if you're still using Windows.
- Miro (Windows, OS X, Linux)
- Miro bills itself as a "free, open-source video platform." With a built in media player and video search function similar to Vuze, it's best thought of as an open source, independent alternative to online video stores/players like iTunes. Unlike Vuze, which works well with torrents of any content type, Miro's user interface is optimized specifically for video, and doesn't handle other torrents well. Use if you want to subscribe to online video channels via bittorent. Stay away if you want to use bittorrent for anything else.
For P2P users familiar with programs like Kazaa, Limewire or Napster (back in the day), bittorrent may be a little difficult to understand. Instead of searching for files directly within a bittorrent client, users must use a website called a tracker to find the file they want, download the torrent file, and finally utilize their bittorrent client to handle the torrent file. Clients like Vuze and Miro make this easier by including a search feature, but you're probably still better off using one of these trackers. They work with every operating system and bittorrent client, so don't worry if you're a Mac or a PC, a Vuze fan or a Transmission lover.
It's worth mentioning here that while bittorrent trackers mentioned on this list are generally trustworthy, some torrents may include malicious content. Before using bittorrent, make sure your computer and browser have the latest security updates installed. Update your anti-virus software. Get Firefox if you use Internet Explorer, and install Adblock Plus to avoid banner ads on tracker sites.
- Torrentz is an aggregator for bittorrent trackers. A single search here returns results from many other trackers. It's a good place to start.
- The Pirate Bay
- The Pirate Bay is the most well known bittorrent tracker, and its administrators actively fight against big media to keep bittorrent alive. You'll find movies, music, software and more on the tracker.
- tvRSS maintains RSS feeds for television torrents. If your bittorrent client supports RSS, you can subscribe to searches and automatically have the client download episodes of, say, Battlestar Galactica, when they're uploaded to the tracker. Good for TV but not much else.
Cover Your Ass: Encryption and Peer Guardian
While encrypting your bittorrent traffic doesn't make it impossible for ISPs to determine what traffic you send and receive, it does make it more difficult for them. This increases the likelihood you will be able to successfully connect to other bittorrent users. Check your client's help documents, FAQ or community forum to learn how to enable encryption.
Encrypting your traffic will not prevent other bittorrent users from determining what you share. To block organizations you don't want seeing what you share, install Peer Guardian (open source; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP/2003, OS X, NO Vista or Linux support). It is effectively a firewall program that automatically blocks IP addresses from certain ranges, such as those belonging to the RIAA, theMPAA or government agencies. Additionally, IPs from ad companies, Microsoft and other corporations are blocked by default. IP block lists are compiled from several sources and updated regularly.
Those of you who will only use bittorrent to download copyright-free material have little to worry about from the RIAA or MPAA, but can still benefit from Peer Guardian. By blocking some commercial IPs, Peer Guardian allows you to watch Hulu videos without annoying commercial interruptions. It additionally protects you from bizarre traffic originating from the Internet's bogon netherworld.
Peer Guardian is an important piece of software to have if you use bittorrent, but it can block legitimate connections and its interface is sometimes a little obtuse. Rather than skipping it, though, check Phoenixlabs' FAQ and forums if you have problems or questions. Once it's set up, Peer Guardian just runs in the background and prevents your computer from making undesirable connections; it's definitely worth a half hour of your time to configure.
What Did I Miss?
What are your favorite clients, trackers and security applications? Did I miss a lightweight open source alternative to µTorrent? Leave a comment and let us know.