Despite its rising popularity, a Virtual Private Network system is still at the center of heated debates. Its usefulness and even the ethics of its users are constantly disputed. And from arguing over the VPN’s unethical implications, it is but a short step to discussing its legality. Indeed, many companies and entire countries are engaged in campaigns against VPNs, voicing their public indignation at their illegality or banning them altogether. Netflix, whose selective streaming of content to different geographical regions is part and parcel of its policies, has been most critical of VPNs, since people’s use of them breaches its rules. To sustain its business integrity, Netflix has repeatedly been trying to prevent VPNs from bypassing its geographical restrictions. Attempting to stop unauthorized access to its content from users outside the USA, Hulu, likewise, has been blocking anyone whose IP addresses are linked to VPN services. Yet the war on VPNs is not being conducted solely at the level of individual companies motivated by business interests. Driven by social security concerns, governments of such countries as China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and the UAE also have been cracking down on VPNs, some more violently than others. If these countries’ efforts continue unabated, VPNs are in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth, or at least from some parts thereof.
Finding themselves in middle of this bitter controversy, VPN providers are engaged in an additional war between themselves. Those who are not troubled by the question of the legality of VPNs and embrace their usefulness are debating what type of the VPN services – paid or free – is most beneficial. Leaving the ethical problem of VPNs to others to solve, this article is concerned with less grand issues. It focuses precisely on the smaller quarrel between VPN services, explaining how paid and free VPNs differ from each other. We are also touching here on the history of the VPN’s development. Having read our explanations, readers are welcome to decide for themselves which kind of VPN to prefer or whether to resort to the encrypted protocol tunneling communication methods at all. For additional information, readers are invited to go over this ExpressVPN review, which will enlighten them about issues not addressed in the paragraphs below.
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First, a brief explanation of what VPNs are is in order. The Virtual Private Network is a service that helps you access the internet privately and securely. It does this by routing your connection through a server and hiding your online presence. The birth of the VPN can be traced back to 1996. This year, Microsoft’s Gurdeep Singh-Pall invented a method for implementing virtual private networks, referred to as Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). The idea behind this invention was to give people a secure internet connection. Since then, the VPN technology has incessantly been diversifying and becoming more refined. Indeed, over the years, various kinds of VPNs have emerged.
There are now personal and business VPNs on offer that use different protocols: L2TP/IPsec, OpenVPN, PPTP, SSTP. Encryption employed to protect users also varies. These days, the camouflaging of the user’s data is realized by three methods. One of them, called hashing and created with an algorithm (MD5 or SHA) or hash function, creates a unique, fixed-length signature for a message or data set. In hashing, the process cannot be reversed or deciphered, when the data is encrypted. In other words, even if cyber attackers obtain the hash, they will not be able to use a decryption method and understand the original message.
Another encryption method is called symmetric or private-key. The oldest encryption method, it is the least secure. In this method, the key used to encrypt and decrypt data remains secure, since anyone who can access it can read the message. The sender encodes the message into ciphertext using a specific key. The receiver uses the same key to decode the transmitted message. Among symmetric encryption algorithms are Data Encryption Standard (DES), Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), and International Data Encryption Algorithm (IDEA).
The third encryption method is asymmetric, also referred to as public key. It uses two keys - private and public - to perform encryption and decryption. The existence of the two keys makes the asymmetric method more secure than the symmetric one, because many users do not need to keep one key secure to transmit messages between them. The public key is shared by all users to encrypt their data. The private key, in contrast, remains with the receiver who needs it to decrypt ciphertext messages. Algorithms using this encryption method are Diffie-Hellman and RSA.
Today, these encryption methods are used to fight censorship and government surveillance in some countries or simply to improve online security, which is particularly crucial now, when cybercrime is on the rise. To help internet users understand how they can protect their privacy, we are further explaining in the space that remains what is the difference between the paid and the free VPN. For an obvious reason, free VPNs enjoy greater popularity among users than paid ones. Yet the paid software has some advantages, of which many users might not be aware. The free VPN services provide only Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) utilizing MS-CHAP V2. What is not so good with MS-CHAP V2 is that it is easily hacked and thus insecure. The paid VPNs allow people to use not only PPTP but also L2TP/IPsec, SSH, OPEN VPN, and SSTP. These are highly secure connections. Another difference between the free and the paid VPNs is their speed. Attracting a lot of users, free VPNs are understandably slow. The absence of bandwidth, which is costly for the free VPN providers, makes their speed even slower. Providers charging for their VPNs, by contrast, have resources to pay for bandwidth, thus guaranteeing that their VPNs will run quickly.
Paid VPNs also have better customer support, because their providers have money to offer it. People who do not pay for their VPNs cannot ask specialists to take care of their malfunction. Providers charging for their VPNs, by contrast, include technical and customer support in their price. Users of paid VPNs can thus rightly demand assistance, when their software stops working properly.
What, however, speaks against the paid VPN is a lack of anonymity that its users suffer. In order to purchase the software, users obviously need to provide their names, address, and credit card details. But people usually resort to VPNs precisely in order to hide their identities and use the internet undetected. In a way, then, paid VPNs defy the very idea with which the Virtual Private Network services were created. When users download the software free of charge, they leave no personal details and can surf the net completely anonymously. Yet whether to prefer speed over anonymity is a matter of personal choice. Both paid and free versions have merits and demerits, just as the VPN itself brings benefits to its users and, simultaneously, incurs the wrath of many media moguls and governments.