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Freedom Isn’t Free: VPN Edition
Many VPN providers offer a free tier that limits either the overall data you can transfer or the amount you can transfer in a given time period. If you’re a light data user and/or not particular about your transfer rates, a free VPN with a low data cap may be worthwhile if it offers other features such as desirable server locations or greater ease of use. If you find yourself needing to download more content, then you’ll need to either switch VPN providers or move to a paid tier.
In some cases, the VPN provider may only allow access to servers in certain parts of the world at the free tier, or certain servers may be reserved only for paid subscribers, generally meaning that paid subscribers will get more variety and likely faster service. The location of the VPN server may affect latency, which is the time it takes for your Internet traffic to get to its destination and back, and it may be important if you are trying to bypass certain geographic restrictions. Even different paid services may not offer equivalent server capabilities, so you should research each provider’s capabilities ahead of time.
Many free VPN providers restrict which protocols can be accessed, in particular BitTorrent, so if you want to use a blocked protocol, you’ll probably need to pay. I have not seen any free VPN clients which permit both unlimited consumption and unlimited protocols. Also worth considering is that some streaming services block known VPN providers, so if you want to watch Netflix or Hulu, you should probably test those services first with a free VPN before making the investment. Of course, if you plan on streaming a lot of media, a free VPN is probably not for you. Also, note that a streaming service may block a VPN service without warning, so there’s no guarantee that a VPN will continue to work with that service.
How easy is the software to set up and use? This criterion is really about personal taste and willingness to wrangle client configuration. If you find a client that meets your other requirements, you may be willing to struggle with an unintuitive interface to get your job done.
VPN Client Requires Unknown Third-Party Software
I said it above, and I’ll say it again: just don’t bother. Some free VPN software will pop up advertising, which you as a consumer can certainly accept or not as you choose, but I recommend avoiding anything that attempts to install third-party software of any sort. Such software often constitutes a malware vector and will almost certainly do something you don’t want.
Rolling your own: If you have a robust technical background and some time, why not build your own VPN server in the cloud? Freelan is an open-source project that attempts to democratize VPN software. For the price of a low-cost cloud instance, you can deploy an OpenBSD server for maximum security, install and configure Freelan, and you’re up and running! Particularly sagacious and entrepreneurial readers will note the opportunity for bootstrapping their own VPN business in this fashion. Let us know how you get on.
Tor: The Tor Project browser is an option for the seriously privacy-conscious. While not a full VPN, the Tor Browser provides enhanced encryption and anonymization. Alternately, it is possible to combine VPN and Tor to get the advantages of both technologies, with the caveat that such a connection is likely to be quite slow and thus unsuitable for certain types of Internet browsing.
The old switcheroo: If you can’t or don’t want to afford a VPN, but the free tier of any one is insufficient, you always have the option of installing multiple clients and using the one that fits your needs at a particular moment. How much inconvenience are you willing to tolerate to avoid coughing up your hard-earned? More seriously, this approach may be suitable for the extremely cautious; if you don’t want to trust a particular VPN provider, you can always rotate through them so that no one has a complete picture of your Internet browsing history. Using the VPN + Tor approach mentioned above may be more convenient, though.
When it comes to choosing whether to use a free VPN or paid one, the main question is what you want to do. Light Internet users should have no problem finding a free or low-cost product which suits their needs. Heavier users, especially those who stream or download significant media, will want to research and test individual products to find one that fits their needs, and it’s unlikely that a free product will be sufficient. Finally, individuals looking for even greater anonymity or a challenge may want to consider looking beyond a single VPN provider.