Dear Lifehacker, I've heard people murmur about "private" BitTorrent trackers and how they're so much better than sites like The Pirate Bay, but I don't really know what a private tracker is. Does it just increase my privacy? I have a Demonoid account, but I never use it. Should I be? Thanks, Secret Sharing
You do get a little increased privacy from a private tracker, but the bigger benefits include a larger selections of files, faster downloads, higher quality files, and strong communities behind them. They're called "private" because they regulate who is allowed to use the site -- it's an exclusive community. They have a lot of benefits, but they also come with a lot of rules, regulations and difficulties.
So before I continue, I want to make clear that private trackers are definitely not for everyone. You need to have a pretty strong dedication to most of these communities, and they often have strict rules about what you can and cannot do once you get invited (which is a whole process in and of itself). Most of you might be better off with something like Usenet to share and download files, because it doesn't require nearly as much work on your part. Here's what it means to be a private BitTorrent tracker, and what you'd get from being a part of one.
What Does It Mean to Be "Private"?
A BitTorrent tracker, for those of you that don't remember, is a server that regulates the communication between those downloading and uploading torrents. The defining factor of private BitTorrent trackers is that they're selective about who gets to use the site. Unlike The Pirate Bay or isoHunt, where anyone can search and download torrents, private trackers require you be invited by another user and create an account in order to use the service. If you don't know someone with an account, then you need to go through an often intense interview process to get an invite (trading or selling invites online is strictly prohibited in most cases).
In addition, they often have many rules about how you can use the site. These can include but are not limited to:
- Rules regarding ratio: You need to have a certain upload to download ratio, meaning you can't just download torrents and delete them -- you need to seed them so others can download them too. Some sites will ban you if you have a low ratio, while others will restrict what you can do on the site (such as uploading torrents, making torrent requests, or inviting other users) if you have a low ratio.
- Rules regarding invites: Users you invite reflect on you, and if they harm the community, it can harm your stance in the community as well (in some cases, you could be banned).
- Rules regarding uploads: If you upload files to the site, they need to be of a certain quality, format, and/or use a certain organisational structure. Where most BitTorrent sites seem like a hodgepodge of disorganised files, private trackers are usually much more organised and quality-conscious.
These rules will vary from site to site, but that's a basic idea of what you can expect. There are a lot of great private trackers out there, most of whom have specific niches -- for example, What.CD focuses on music, BroadcastTheNet stocks lots of television and PassThePopcorn has a strong movie library. (Reminder: everything you download will be illegal -- being specialised is not the same as being authorised. The decision to use that service is one you will have to make for yourself.)
If you're interested in signing up for one, I recommend searching around for a private tracker that fits your needs, then researching that site's rules, regulations and invitation practices before joining. If you can't keep up with the rules, there's no point in even trying to get an invite, because these guys tend to be pretty serious.
I should note here that Demonoid is, for all intents and purposes, not a private tracker. It holds open signups far too often and has little to no rules regulating the community. It's so easy to get an invite or sign up that it can barely be considered private, so while it's a fine place to find torrents, don't assume you're getting any anonymity just by downloading from there. Its selection isn't much better than public sites, either, though the community is a bit better than sites like The Pirate Bay in terms of keeping things seeded (even though there's no required ratio).
What Do I Get Out of It?
That sounds like an awful lot of work just to use BitTorrent, doesn't it? Because of these rules, you get a lot of benefits, including (but again, not limited to):
- A fantastic selection of torrents: Most of these sites pride themselves on a wide selection of whatever type of file they focus on. In fact, in many cases, it's hard to find something they don't have.
- High quality files: Most sites have very high quality standards, and if an uploaded torrent doesn't meet them, it's deleted. If you're looking for lossless music, for example, a private tracker is a great place to start searching.
- Crazy-fast downloads: Because the community is so committed to seeding, and because lots of them have fast internet connections, you'll sometimes get much higher speeds on private trackers compared to public ones.
- Some increased privacy: Because the rules are so strict and the sites are so much less traveled than sites like The Pirate Bay, you're a lot less likely to have someone looking over your shoulder at everything you download. However, I wouldn't recommend a private tracker just for anonymity -- if you really want to keep your downloading private, I still highly recommend a VPN or proxy service like BTGuard.
- A great community: The people on private trackers are very helpful in answering questions, keeping things seeded, and even uploading torrents that you request.
Should I Use One?
At this point, only you can really answer that question. Check out some tracker reviews over at Torrent Invites, and if you find a few that appeal to you, research their invite process and site rules and see if they're things you can handle. Do you know enough about BitTorrent to understand how the site is maintained? Are you able to seed your torrents often (that is, do you leave your computer on all day or have an always-on NAS to seed for you)? If the site's rules or interview process don't look like something you can handle, then I don't particularly recommend joining. Again, Usenet will get you pretty far when it comes to most things -- but if you're serious about following the rules and want a good selection of quality torrents, private trackers can be pretty awesome.
PS If you have any experience with private trackers -- good or bad -- tell us in the comments. There are a lot of different trackers out there, with different niches, rules and benefits. The above is just a general summary.
Also, please don't ask for or share invites in the comments of this post. Not only is this prohibited at most private trackers, but it also spams up our comments and takes away from the conversation.
And a final reminder: a huge percentage of the content shared on private trackers violates copyright. Their popularity demonstrates that most people aren't concerned about breaking the law in this way, but don't delude yourself: the law is being broken.
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