After the Beijing 2008 Olympics most people anticipated that internet censorship in China would ease but contrary to expectations the situation continues to get worse with more sites being blocked by the week (see whatblocked.com for the latest). Traditionally people bypassed the blocks using anonymous proxies and other free services but many of these have also been barred by the government and those which remain are usually so overwhelmed that service is patchy and slow at best. The best solution for foreigners in China and anyone wanting to access sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook these days is to get a personal VPN account using one of the commercial services available.
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, basically allows you to create a secure tunnel through your existing internet connection to a server in another country (usually Europe or America) where you can then enjoy complete freedom to surf as you would anywhere else. The technology is exactly the same as corporations use to allow their employees to work from home but is now available for personal use. Whilst it isn’t free they’re usually a lot more reliable and faster than the alternatives.
I recently got the opportunity to try a relative newcomer to the area called 12vpn (having also previously reviewed Witopia). Founded in 2008 by a group of expats in Asia who began by offering IT services to businesses, Anuson Limited opened up their VPN solution to end-users earlier this year.
They offer two basic packages for individuals – “Lite” ($30/year) and “Personal” ($70/year) with the only real difference being that the former has a bandwidth cap 10gb per month. Both provide multiple protocols for accessing the service (OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec, IKEv2 and Cisco) meaning that you can use it on virtually any device. I tested it on a Windows 7 laptop, a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard, my iPhone (first generation) and iPad (running iOS 4.2).
First impressions were good – sign-up is easy with a variety of payment options including PayPal and a 7-day money back guarantee if you’re not satisfied. Once this is complete you’re provided with setup instructions and emailed security certificates which allow you to connect to the service. The configuration steps are extremely simple with an automated installer being provided for your platform of choice (Windows/Mac…). As this is a true VPN service (not a proxy) all your applications will work without any need to change anything – you just hit connect and away you go.
For Mac users you’ll get a free license for Viscosity which offers a nicer user experience over the open source Tunnelblick alternative (the client used to connect to the VPN service).
The first thing you’ll notice once your connected with 12vpn is that you can now access to all your favourite sites again. The second thing is the big speed improvement for international sites. Whilst your download/upload speed is still limited to your physical connection things feel a lot quicker since the route the traffic is taking is far more direct and stable. In my tests YouTube videos streamed with minimal buffering time and downloading large files worked without any issues. In comparison to Witopia there isn’t any noticeable speed difference although 12vpn felt faster to connect but this isn’t something I can verify.
The service also offers a choice of servers in the US, UK and Germany which you can choose to use although I found the default to be more than adequate. If you want to use services like BBC iPlayer or Spotify then be sure to connect to the London server (and vice versa for US services).
One of the great thing about 12vpn is that you can also use it on your smartphone (using L2TP usually). Setting it up on my iPhone was simply a matter of emailing myself a configuration file which when opened on the phone set everything up without any need to delve into any technical details. In China most people still use EDGE on their mobile for data services (3G coverage is patchy) and I had no problems connecting. This was far easier than with Witopia which I could never get to work on my phone in the past. Being able to twitter on the go is a small pleasure but one which is strangely appreciated when so far from home.
12vpn is a great service that I would recommend to anyone needing to bypass the great firewall or just those looking for an extra layer of security. Where the service differentiates and excels in comparison to the competition is in its flexibility to be used transparently on almost any device you might have with minimal fuss. While in an ideal world a VPN wouldn’t be necessary it’s a small price to pay for freedom.
12vpn have kindly offered to give Randomwire readers who sign up a 10% discount – enter the promotional code RANDOMWIRE when you sign-up to qualify.