Editor’s note: the Freedur VPN service, which is mentioned repeatedly below, has been acquired by MocaVPN and is managed by a different organization. Other VPN services are functionally equivalent though, so the information below might still be helpful in explaining how VPN services work. One VPN service that I can recommend with confidence is StrongVPN.
If you aren’t using a proxy to access the internet from the Mainland you’re missing out on a lot of great content – Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Blogspot to name a few of the most well known blocked sites. But it doesn’t stop with those: in everyday browsing you’re likely to come across other sites that you can’t access. Here’s how to get unlimited internet access free of blocks or restrictions by using an intermediary server.
What is a Proxy Server / VPN?
A virtual private network is defined as: a computer network that is implemented in an additional software layer on top of an existing larger network for the purpose of creating a private scope of computer communications
What does that mean in layman’s terms?
When you type Facebook.com into your browser the Great Firewall blocks access because that site is on a list. Anything on the list cannot be accessed directly from within the ‘Firewall because it controls incoming and outgoing connections. A proxy is an intermediary server which is not on the list and it, in turn, connects to any site you want since its access is unrestricted. Once software is installed and activated the process is seamless and you won’t notice which sites are blocked and which aren’t. Browse your friends Facebook photos to your hearts content and tweet about them if you like.
Is this free?
Of the services available several are free and monetized by advertising and others are ad-free but require a monthly fee. The most well known among free options was Hotspot Shield, although it bombarded users with advertisements and didn’t always work – that was before it was blocked outright. Unfortunately free proxies seem to get nailed pretty quickly so if you want a reliable solution you’ll be paying for the privilege of unrestricted internet access.
The best option that I’ve found is Freedur, which costs $6 a month or $60 annually. After downloading the small program, registering, and completing checkout with credit card or Paypal, you login with your username and password. You’ll be prompted to install a Firefox plugin (you are using Firefox, aren’t you?) and after that you simply press the enormous “On” button to start filtering all of your browser traffic. There are several servers you can select in a drop down menu including locations in the US, UK, and one specially optimized for Beijing. Simple as that. Even better, if you enter “chengduliving” into the coupon entry box at checkout you’ll save 10%.
Another option which also costs $60 annually is Witopia VPN. After signing up, a program creates an encrypted connection to an overseas server that grants you unrestricted access. Witopia actually goes a step further by offering the “Cloakbox”: a modified router which automatically routes all of its traffic through a private encrypted connection. It costs $200, which seems steep, but includes a year of service. Because they don’t offer a free trial I haven’t tried Witopia personally but judging by the glowing reviews online it looks outstanding. One thing to note about Witopia is that it’s a real VPN which routes all traffic through the encrypted connection – not just web browser traffic. If you’re downloading something on Bit Torrent, for example, that traffic will be routed through the VPN. That will work fine, but for people in China it’s not really necessary because the blocked resources that we’re trying to access are websites.
Another option (thanks, Callum) is the The Onion Relay, also known as Tor. Using this method, traffic is routed through a myriad of encrypted proxy computers like layers of an onion. Although designed as a tool for scientists, Tor has been abused by p2p downloaders and child pornographers in recent years. The downsides of this routing method are significant: because traffic is routed through a series of proxiy servers, speeds are often very slow and the whole thing is somewhat of a hassle to set up and configure (as evidenced by this 50-page FAQ). However, if you have the time and will to get it working, Tor is totally free because it operates on donated bandwidth.
How fast is it? Are there any downsides?
Since average internet speeds in China are sub-par even for developing countries, Freedur can easily max out my residential 2mb China Telecom internet connection which at its fastest, is downloading at 200kb/s. The Freedur application is small and works flawlessly – once the accompanying Firefox plugin is installed the giant On button works like you’d expect.
Whether you decide to try Freedur or Witopia, $60 for a year of service is a great value when you consider how much content it allows you access to from China. Free proxies are ridden with advertisements, distractions, and hassle – skip all of that and pay about 1 yuan a day to get unrestricted internet access with a VPN.
Are you using a proxy to access the internet? If so write about your experience in a comment below!
Disclaimer: Freedur doesn’t pay me and the opinions above are my own. Your VPN experience with Freedur or any other service might differ from mine, although I did test each VPN mentioned above on multiple computers at different locations. Should you have problems with Freedur or any other VPN, I suggest you contact them since I can’t help you.