Free P2P VPN server with VPNGate and SoftEther

VPNGate is a free P2P VPN service set up by Tsukuba University in Japan to help people bypass their government ISP Internet censorship firewall, the service relies on worldwide volunteers to provide their own computer or server resources acting as VPN gateway to the Internet, SoftEhter is a VPN client whose development is subsidized by the Japanese Government Ministry of Economy, to be released as open source.

VPNGate can be set up with your favourite VPN/L2TP/SSTP client or in conjunction with SoftEther, an alternative OpenVPN software developed by the same Japanese university that works with Windows, Linux, Mac, FreeBSD and Solaris. I played for a couple of hours with SoftEther and attempted to set up a manual VPN tunnel using one the VPN hostnames supplied on VPNGate website and I did not succeed, I found SoftEther to be a very complicated VPN client for the average user, advanced settings come with an explanation of what everything is for but you need a technological background to understand what it means and lots of time. My view is that SoftEther VPN client is not something you can send to non computer knowledgeable people, there is an “Easy” mode that allows you to connect to a VPN server with a single click, but you can’t use it unless you have set up a VPN tunnel first which requires the advanced mode. I only managed to use VPNGate after downloading SoftEther bundled with the VPNGate plugin which automatically downloads a list of available public VPN relay servers and allows you to connect to one of them with a simple mouse selection.

Public VPN relay servers VPNGate
Public VPN relay servers VPNGate

During SotEther VPN installation you can choose to only install management tools or the whole package, once you set up a VPN tunnel you can export it with a .vpn extension and import it later on, if the server you are connecting to is reliable it is a good idea to do that, keep in mind that the tunnels are run by volunteers and there are no guarantees of uptime or speed, depending on what country you choose the VPN itself can have filters, I spotted an Italian VPN server run by a College announcing that they run Untangled Internet content filtering, I also connected to an Iranian VPN gateway that was blocking access to all Israeli websites, gambling and adult entertainment content, this was obviously done by Iranian ISP and not the user.

VPNGate can be a magnificent tool to check if your website is accessible abroad, another advantage of a P2P VPN is that you get a real ISP computer IP, with a traditional VPN service the IP is announced as non conventional listing the IP organisation owner in a data centre instead of an Internet Service Provider, I have used VPN services for years and only in VPNGate I was able to get an Sbcglobal IP, many credit card fraud systems flag any purchase attempt done through VPN server, I see potential for credit card fraud with VPNGate, the service logs all activities but there is nothing stopping people from using a double VPN or tor proxy with VPNGate and make themselves untraceable.

SoftEther VPN Easy mode
SoftEther VPN Easy mode

VPNGate has not been designed to hide your computer IP, this is not an anonymity service, the idea is to bypass Internet censorship like the great firewall of China or the Iranian Internet filter, activities are logged and SoftEther corporation warns that it will help the police if necessary with the warning that people has been arrested in the past for using their services to commit a crime. The service has public access logs viewable on their website, showing VPN sessions with partial IP numbers the country they belong to and the chosen VPN server, gateways are allocated a quality score based on reliability and speed, according to the logs at the moment most of the exit nodes appear to be located in Japan and most users based in China, using a Japanese VPN from Europe will cause Internet lagging, it is not a good idea, theoretically there is no reason why an European surfer would need to connect to VPNGate since they are not the target public this project is aimed at.

I loved being able to connect to far away locations to check if my website was being blocked and what advertisements Google was displaying based on location, something I noticed is that Iranian visitors are not shown any advertising from Google Adsense, it could have to do with international sanctions and Google being a US company. VPNGate has vowed to always remain free, Tsubuka University rules prohibit any monetary profit from their activities, unless legal or technical difficulties arise they intend to keep the VPNGate academic research project alive for in between three to eight years.

Visit VPNGate homepage

Six years review of hosting

Around six years ago I decided to create a controversial website that was legal under US law but it was sure to attract complaints and run afoul of most hosting companies terms and conditions, with plenty of money this is not a huge a problem, you can rent a dedicated server and host whatever you like, the small guy with a small budget for a small site only has shared hosting to go to.

I carried out a thorough free speech shared hosting research and only found two companies fitting for my content, NearlyFreeSpeech and CrisisHost, after an initial bad experience with CrisisHost due to continuous server downtime, I moved my site to NearlyFreeSpeech, another US based company suitable for small sites. NearlyFreeSpeech has a unique in-house developed hosting control panel divided into tabs, not overtly complicated but with many less features than cPanel or Plesk, nevertheless adequate for a small site, only requiring a bit more of work setting up a database, email or domain canonical name than it would require with an industry standard hosting panel.

Static HTML sites are easy to set up in NearlyFreeSpeech, simply upload the files with SFTP and it’s done, if you want a WordPress blog or MediaWiki with a SQL database you will have to roll up your sleeves and spend a few hours reading the documentation, people who has never managed a website will likely find it confusing seeing terms like log automatic rotation, log archival compression, DNS setup or choosing if you want to activate PHP, the host hasn’t got any one-click installer like cPanel. On the positive side after everything has been configured you are not likely to ever have to do it again, it is a one off time investment and if NearlyFreeSpeech exceeds at something that is in documentation, their help pages are very detailed and clear.

NearlyFreeSpeech control panel
NearlyFreeSpeech control panel

The pricing structure is something I did not like, it is abruptly complicated, there isn’t a flat rate, you have to pay tiny amounts for each one of the priced at under a cent resources you use, like bandwidth, storage space, DNS, number of SQL databases, activating PHP, email forwarding and others, the money is discounted daily from your prepaid account.

If you require support this has to be paid for separately buying credits that give you a determinate amount of tickets, I am fairly experienced with websites and I did not have to use NearlyFreeSpeech paid support, a free alternative is to use the active members only forum where you can get advice from other customers, you can only see this forum after signing up for an account, the forum is not indexed by search engines, I found it to be very helpful and staff also posts there often to help you out. Another nice feature is a members only poll where people can vote what new component they would like to see implemented next and it will be taken into consideration by staff depending on how many votes there are and how easy it is to do it. NearlyFreeSpeech can register your domain with whois privacy protection but I considered it best to use a domain registrar separated from the hosting account in case anything happens with one of them, this would later turn out to be a very wise decision.

My site had 4.000 daily visitors, consuming 40GB monthly bandwidth, I was afraid that given that NearlyFreeSpeech charges accounts per consumed bandwidth and you need to prepay it in advance, free speech enemies could bombard the site with an automatic crawler like HTTrack and ansorb all of my bandwidth running me out of funds but this never happened. I would approximately spend around $90 a year on the site, working out at $7.5/month, an average price I think, you can pay with a credit card, Paypal or US check mailed in.

I had a problem with the site the first year when an anonymous person filled in a DMCA complaint against one of my articles quoting him, NearlyFreeSpeech support emailed me giving me the choice of taking the article down or counter the DMCA, to avoid problems and wasting time I decided to pull down that specific post, it was the only time I ever had a ticket opened and it happened the first year.

NearlyFreeSpeech asks for my passport

After six trouble free years of hosting with NearlyFreeSpeech with no server down time I can remember of, the company sent me an email out of the blue informing me that my membership had been selected for supplemental ID verification and asking me to provide them with a copy of a government-issued ID such as a passport and proof of address matching the information I had registered in my account. I was not happy that after so long of hosting with NearlyFreeSpeech and causing no problems they would now come to me with this threatening to close down my account if I did not comply.

In 48 hours I received a second message telling me that I had been “fined” (NearlyFreeSpeeh discounted $1 from my account) for not replying and threatened to increase the penalty amount until I run out of funds if I did not get in touch with them. After a back and forward ticket exchange with support it became clear that they would not back down from their request (ticket 63146) that I send in a copy of a government ID and bill matching the account address, NearlyFreeSpeech kept going on about their terms and conditions saying that accurate registration information had to be provided or I would be violating their terms and conditions and the account terminated. At this point I referred to their refund policy saying that I could contact them at any time to close the account and ask for any left credit to be paid back, to be precise, I had $55 left in my account, NearlyFreeSpeech refused me a refund saying that I had broken their terms and conditions and I could only get a refund if I provided them with a copy of a government ID and matching address.

NearlyFreeSpeech bandwidth usage
NearlyFreeSpeech bandwidth usage

I have to give it to Jeff from support that he went the extra mile explaining me the problem in detail and offering me the choice to donate the money to any website hosted with NearlyFreeSpeech or to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, saying that they had no interest in getting paid for services not provided. My dispute here was that they could not accuse someone of providing false information when they had no evidence other than realising six years after initial registration, the account address belonged to a homeless shelter, which in itself does not mean I provided a false address since that is where I lived, so, without any corroboration of me breaching NearlyFreeSpeech terms and conditions, they had already considered me guilty, faced with the hard reality of the hosting company not backing off, I instructed them to donate the money to someone else and close down my account for good.

If you wonder why I refused to provide NearlyFreeSpeech with a copy of my passport and a bill with a matching address is because as anyone who runs a controversial website knows, your life can be at risk if that information leaks on the Internet and it is troubling that a free speech hosting company can have such stringent identity measures in place, specially given the length of time one has been a customer, NearlyFreeSpeech had six years of Paypal payments on record, that alone was more than enough to track me down if I there was the need, not that it is their responsibility to track me down anyway.

Be warned if you host with NearlyFreeSpeech, they can ask for your passport and utility bill with your address at any time they like for a random identity check.I am now hosting my site with PRQ in Sweden, slightly more expensive but committed to free speech hosting, and they allow anonymous Bitcoin payments.

Alternatively see this list of free speech hosting companies

Review VPN provider IPVanish

IPVanish VPN provider has thousands of available IPs,their servers can be found scattered all over the world in places as exotic as Japan, Malaysia, Austria, Spain, USA, Canada and many more. Some locations have various servers, making this VPN provider one of the biggest out there, with the added benefit that there is no bandwidth limit.

IPVanish prices are reasonable and their services can be used in Windows, Mac OS and Linux as well as mobile devices like the iPad/iPhone, Android (LT2P&PPTP) and dd-wrt compatible routers. The digital certificates to connect to their severs can be downloaded from within your control panel, that will allow you to use IPVanish in any Unix operating systems able to run OpenVPN, like OpenBSD, NetBSD or Solaris.

OpenVPN Windows client 

I have been with IPVanish for two weeks now, their proprietary OpenVPN Windows client is the most inadequate OpenVPN client I have ever seen. Every time you launch IPVanish VPN client you will see a popup a window that says “verifying application requirements” and it makes you wait for a few seconds, after that the client will download the list of servers and will start pinging all of them waiting for the response time. A very bad idea when you have dozens of servers, you can expect wasting a minute of your time while server pings resolve, not happy with that, in the middle of the session every certain length of time the VPN client will refresh the ping rate stopping you from changing server until it has finished.

This is not even necessary, as the ping rate alone does not determine the best VPN server, you also need to know the server load which can only be found in IPVanish control panel, the software wastes your time for nothing. IPVanish VPN client preferences allow you to save your username and password, and that is about as much freedom as you will get out of the settings.

VPN provider IPVanish
VPN provider IPVanish

Once you are connected to a server it will be difficult for you to know if you remain connected and what server is the one you are using, the green/red button (see screenshot) is very tiny and there is no clear indication of what server you are using except by a cryptic server name that is meant to show the server country location.

IPVanish server speed 

Server speed was fine, tested from Europe, USA servers can get 6 to 8Mbps, Canadian servers were on 2Mbps and European servers reached around 9Mbps (my home ISP is 10Mbps), during all this time I didn’t find any noticeable slow down, just the usual Asian servers making it difficult for me to browse the Internet because I am too far from them (ping rate problem),  nothing unusual. I was able to watch online USA/Canada TV, none of IPVanish servers I used were blocked by Hulu, GlobalTV or Slacker Radio, what I did find is that some of their servers in Spain, Sweden and Malaysia are falsely reported in different locations by various websites, IPVanish claims that they escalate these issues with geolocation software vendors but it takes time for the database to update because the companies providing these services treat it as a low priority.

IPVanish support quality 

I contacted support through their forums asking how long they keep connection logs, I was told that at the moment IPVanish keeps logs for 30 days, this can be obviously changed any time they like and since the details are not included anywhere in their privacy policy you will never know for sure, maybe by next week log keeping will be 5 years or 5 days, no way of knowing other than asking daily. I also contacted support once through email, it only took them a few hours to get back to me, just unlucky that support did not paid too much attention to my message because kept asking the same questions all the time, in fairness, I noticed that there were two different people dealing with the ticket but they should be reading the messages from the beginning instead of keep asking the same all over again, in the end I got my problem solved by a third person. Altogether it felt amateurish and not professional, specially as I never got a reply to my forum question when I was told they would find out.

Conclusion IPVanish review 

If you are a Windows user I would stay away from IPVanish until they release a better VPN client, I know of small VPN companies that beat IPVanish OpenVPN client hands down, once they solve that problem this provider can compete with the big league, until then I would call IPVanish low standard and it is a pity that what looks like a big company could not invest the necessary resources releasing a decent Windows OpenVPN client.