College students like free things. Whether it is free food (arguably the only thing that retains this paper’s staff) or free music, people with low incomes tend to prefer not to pay for things they can otherwise get for free. In the case of digital media, the modern reality of widespread availability of free copies of media originally designed for sale has facilitated a widespread movement in support of file sharing and software piracy. At the same time, major institutions have tried to strike back at this rising tide of piracy, among them Stony Brook University. The Home of the Seawolf does so primarily by attempting to ban the downloading of .torrent files (the files that allow your computer to download software for free through a BitTorrent client). However, it does this in a haphazard and incomplete way, accomplishing little and allowing for simple workarounds. Additionally, there is a file sharing network active on Stony Brook’s campus which avoids the .torrent block altogether. In a parallel with the fruitless pursuit of torrenting giant The Pirate Bay by law enforcement, Stony Brook will never succeed in stamping out piracy on its campus and should stop blocking .torrent files from being downloaded, as torrent files have legitimate legal uses which end up getting blocked in Stony Brook’s one-size-fits-all torrent policy.
Some of the likely reasoning behind Stony Brook’s blocking of .torrent files is understandable. Torrenting, for the uninitiated, is a widely used technique to obtain files from the internet, frequently files being illegally shared in blatant disregard of copyright laws. Since it uses a format that facilitates transfers of large files relatively quickly, albums and movies are frequently download through it, resulting in large transfers of data. When many people are transferring large files on Stony Brook’s networks, this results in a strain on the network. Therefore, Stony Brook most likely aims to block the downloading of .torrent files to keep the network from being strained by the massive file downloads that torrenting makes possible. However, the reality is that with Netflix, online streaming, and the many workarounds of their BitTorrent block, large files will be transferred no matter what. Stony Brook’s block, instead of stopping piracy and lowering the strain on the network, only ends up making people who use BitTorrent for legitimate purposes have to waste time with working around the block. It is unfair to those who use BitTorrent’s remarkable speed and efficiency to download files legally to hinder them from using the protocol in a hopeless attempt to stem the student body’s internet piracy.
When it comes to the anti-piracy rationale behind such a block, it is important to again emphasize that Stony Brook’s blocking mechanism is not thorough and can easily be legally bypassed if one is willing to tolerate slower download speeds. Out of respect for the university, the Statesman will not be publishing how to do so. However, the process, while ridiculously simple, drops the intended file’s download speed dramatically. That means that those who are trying to download the latest Ubuntu ISO via BitTorrent, for example, have to suffer from massively slower download speeds in the vain attempt to limit an untamable reality of modern internet usage.
Stony Brook’s torrent policy has also resulted in the creation of an online file sharing network known as SBU Alliance. A fork of the Alliance P2P project, SBU Alliance is a decentralized file sharing network that operates solely on Stony Brook’s local networks. It allows its users to relatively securely view and download all the shared files of any user of the network who volunteers to allow them to see their files (and to share files to any of the network’s users). Its main developer, who goes by the pseudonym Spiderman, declined a request for an interview about the network, citing concerns over having the project getting too much exposure (despite him featuring it prominently on the top of the SBU subreddit). Nonetheless, the project is still active and is a direct representation of the folly of trying to crack down on software piracy on the consumer end.
In conclusion, Stony Brook University’s ban on downloading .torrent files is misguided and should end. It does not stem the piracy or network strain it is intended to reduce, and instead inconveniences those who use BitTorrent for legitimate purposes.