Through the past year-plus I've discussed several times the value of Virtual Private Networks, VPNs, for avoiding the hassles created by China's internet-control system generally known as the Great Firewall. I won't give one more plug for the for-pay service my wife and I have been using, since I've mentioned it so often. But at $40 per year, per computer, to us it is worthwhile.
In an Atlantic article six months ago about the Great Firewall, I noted that $40 per year meant different things to different people:
An expat in China [me!] thinks: that's a little over a dime a day. A Chinese factory worker thinks: [$40] is a week's take-home pay. Even for a young academic, it's a couple days' work.
My reaction to a new VPN offering shows that I may have forgotten my previous point. The service is called Hot Spot Shield, from AnchorFree. It's effective, extremely easy to install and run, designed for both Windows and Mac -- and absolutely free. (To download, and for more info, go here.)
I first heard about this from my friend Simon Elegant, and then from other China-based users. I tried it and found it technically very nice and efficient. But I didn't like using it at all. The reason is its "ad-based" business plan. In order to underwrite its free VPN service, it inserts an inch-high banner ad, often flashing, at the top of every new web page you load or visit. There is a "close" button on those ads, but unless you click it every single time, you have an extra, flashing ad wherever you go.
To me, on a day at the desk when I might open hundreds of new web sites, it is worth a total of 11 cents not to see a flashing banner at the top of every one. But the recent surge of interest in Hotspot Shield within China suggests that for lots of people, this is an attractive tradeoff.
Update: Peter Bollig reports that the Opera browser automatically ignores the banner ads. Probably others can be configured the same way, but I didn't take the time to figure out how to do so with IE or Firefox.
One factor may be the overall aesthetics of Chinese web design, which is much, much more enthusiastic about flashing ads and widgets than is the Western standard. (There is no such thing as "too austere" in Western web design -- look at Google. There is no such thing as "too busy" in Chinese site design.) Also, as AnchorFree's Mark Smith says in the Cnet post linked above, unlike for-pay VPNs, this service offers complete anonymity. My VPN company in the US knows who I am, because I pay them with a credit card; no one leaves any trace when using Hotspot Shield.
So by all means check out the service and see whether seeing the ads is worth it to avoid ever using your name or paying 11 cents a day. Or whether you -- like me, Marie Antoinette, and the Dowager Empress -- come instead to the "let them use an ad-free VPN!" conclusion.
And to wax serious for a moment: if free VPN services really do become widespread in China, it could change the calculation behind the Great Firewall. As I argued in the article, the government has been content to leave some loopholes in that wall, as long as getting through them was just enough of a chore that most Chinese users simply wouldn't bother. If the nuisance factor becomes much less, we'll see how the government will respond.