What is Betternet?
Betternet is a VPN provider with 38 million users around the world. That’s 38 million people who don’t realize that they are using the world’s worst Virtual Private Network (VPN). That’s according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia. The CSIRO published the most comprehensive study of VPNs available for Android at the end of 2016. Although Betternet wasn’t ranked as the worst VPN in the world at the time, the two worst VPNs that the research identified have since gone out of business. That leaves the number one spot to Betternet.
Those who plan to join the 38 million Betternet users should probably read all of the small print first. If your eyesight isn’t that good, don’t worry! We’ve run the BestVPN.com magnifying glass over the contract and found all of the skeletons in the company’s closet.
Although Betternet is officially owned by an independent company, the trademark for Betternet is owned by Anchor Free. This company owns another VPN, called Hotspot Shield. The director of Betternet, Alexander Choroko, launched a sister company in April 2017, marketing VPN routers. That company is called Betterspot. The router that it markets comes with the Betternet Premium service included and pre-installed.
- Free version
- Seven-day free trial for Premium service
- 30-day money-back guarantee for Premium service
- Free service only has US servers
- Contains malware
- Contains adware
- Includes tracking procedures
- Gives third parties access to users’ computers
- Absolves itself from the actions of third parties
- Keeps logs
- Cooperates with information demands by the authorities
- IP and Domain Name System (DNS) leaks
- No kill switch
- Slow connections
- Can’t get around regional restrictions
- Collects data on user activities and sells it
Betternet Pricing and Plans
Betternet makes it clear on its website that it doesn’t want your money. It’s just trying to make ends meet in a happy-go-lucky way, much like a hippy commune. However, behind the scenes, it operates a slick, targeted marketing operation.
All Betternet asks is that you download a couple of apps that it recommends. Oh, and you might need to watch a few promotional videos.
With the free VPN, you only get access to one server in the United States. The company runs servers in seven US cities, but allocates free users to one at random. Premium service subscribers get to choose which server they connect to. They also have access to servers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Canada.
Premium subscribers get faster connections and access to servers that the free users can’t get to. Betternet allows five simultaneous connections per account. There’s also a promise that the support team answers your problems a lot faster if you’re a Premium user.
In addition, Betternet doesn’t subject Premium service subscribers to ads. However, there is no mention on the site about whether Betternet also strips the malware and tracking software out of its paid service. Still, at least those who subscribe can feel good about helping the poor, struggling workers at Betternet!
You get the option of taking out a subscription for one month, six months, or a year. The payment agreement sets up a recurring billing agreement. If you don’t cancel the agreement before your subscription period ends, Betternet will automatically charge you to renew your plan.
The Betternet Refund Policy
Betternet states that it gives refunds within four weeks of the opening of a Premium account. However, the conditions of that refund make it almost un-winnable. You can ask for a refund of the current and subsequent month. However, what if you want a refund of a six-month or one-year subscription?
The refund policy also states that no partial refunds are possible, so that rules out anyone getting a refund on a subscription that lasts for longer than one month.
Another condition of the refund is that you must not have used more than 50 MB of data. As such, if you’re going to try for a Premium subscription, make sure you ask for your money back before the end of the calendar month and before you have done anything meaningful with the service.
A bridge between the free VPN and the Premium service is the seven-day free trial of the Premium account. You have to enter your credit card details in order to get the free trial. If you don’t cancel within the trial period, you’ll be rolled onto a monthly tariff, which is the most expensive option.
Betternet’s VPN Features
The free plan gives you the following features:
- Access to a randomly assigned server in the US
- Free access to a browser extension for Chrome
- Free access to a Firefox add-on, which doesn’t work
- Apps for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android
- OpenVPN and Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)/Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) protocols
- Forced advertising viewing
- Activity logging
- Third party secret access to your computer
- Unwanted app downloads
- IP leaks
- DNS leaks
- Slow speeds
Premium users don’t have to watch commercial videos to use the service. However, they still get the same malware and tracking codes that free users enjoy. Although Betternet promises its Premium customers better speeds, it still doesn’t manage to protect them completely from IP leaks or DNS leaks. It also still gives any third party that pays it the ability to download cookies and other malware onto the computers of paying customers.
Is Betternet Secure?
A great aspect of the free service of Betternet is that you can start using it without having to give any personal information – not even an email address.
Here is the Betternet promise on privacy that is written on the VPN’s homepage:
It seems that Betternet does log this identifier, at least for its paying customers. This is the only way that it could check whether a cancelling customer had invalidated the refund policy by using more than 50 MB of data.
User Activity Tracking
Not only does Betternet use semantics to fool its customers, it omits to tell them the secret moves that the VPN includes in order to track users’ activities. Researchers at the University of Sydney and the University of California at Berkeley studied all of the VPNs available at the Google Play store. The researchers that contributed to “An Analysis of the Privacy and Security Risks of Android VPN Permission-enabled Apps,” published by the CSIRO, discovered that Betternet contained more tracking libraries than any other VPN service available for Android. The researchers found that only 25% of VPNs had no tracking modules. 8% of all Android VPNs had more than five tracking libraries. Betternet was way off the chart, with fourteen tracking libraries.
If Betternet isn’t storing data on user activities, why did it include more tracking systems in its code than any other VPN? Why would the company invest so much money to collect customer data, only to throw that information away? Betternet’s privacy claims simply don’t ring true.
There is one more surprise in the Betternet terms of service (ToS): Betternet allows third parties to access your computer. Although the ToS states that this access is to enable advertisers to estimate the effectiveness of their campaigns, the company goes on to say that it doesn’t control the activities of these third parties. Thus it seems Betternet doesn’t keep tabs on the organisations it lets into your computer. The VPN then absolves itself from any responsibility for loss or damage caused by these third parties.
Now you know how much data Betternet collects on its customers, you should also be aware that the company’s FAQ states that it will comply fully with any court orders for copies of stored data.
Betternet isn’t very open about the full details of its encryption and security methods. The FAQ page explains that the VPN uses OpenVPN with AES-256 encryption and also has IPSec with a 128-bit key. However, it doesn’t explain where each of these systems is deployed. There’s no option in the app to change the operating protocol, so it could be that the app for computers uses OpenVPN and the app on mobile devices uses IPSec. Or it could be that all versions of the app use OpenVPN and the browser extensions use IPSec. The support team either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to tell.
Similarly, there’s no information on what data authentication method the system uses. The staff couldn’t tell me what encryption is used for session establishment and key distribution.
The Betternet Website
The website has a good, professional look to it. There aren’t many pages on the site and visitors are channeled towards the free app download button. It’s impossible to see the prices for the Premium service until you’ve already downloaded the free version.
The company is very low-key about the Premium service. You can only learn about it in one small paragraph of the “How We Make Money” page and by picking through the answers to queries that are displayed in the Knowledge Base of the Help Center.
The website’s main menu remains fixed at the top of the screen as you scroll down. This is where the link through to the download file is found. If you’re going to install the app, this is where you need to click.
Betternet Customer Support
Premium users can seemingly access support through the app. Simply click on the hamburger menu at the top left of the app, then select “Contact Us” on the next screen. You need to specify the nature of your request in order to proceed.
Unfortunately, whichever of these buttons you press, you just get your default browser opened for you at its standard start page. That part of the app has bugs.
You have to go to the website to get to the support desk. There’s no link in the site’s top menu for support. Scroll down to the bottom of the homepage and click on “Help Center” there.
This leads to a knowledge base that is categorized by operating system. You can search for a tip in the search box located above the operating system buttons.
The Betternet Help Desk Team
If you want to send a message to the support team, click on “Submit a request” at the top of the screen.
When you enter the Help Request screen, you’ll only see one field, which is the subject of your communication. Once you select this, other fields appear. Below is one of the many attempts I made to try to find out about the encryption that the VPN uses. The first time you submit a request, you need to enter your email address. This field appears between the Technical Issue and Subject fields.
When you click on the Submit button, you receive an auto-response email. You’ll receive the first response to your help request in an email. You’ll also receive a second email prompting you to set up a support account at the Betternet site. It was this notification that alerted me to the relationship between Betternet and Anchor Free, the owners of Hotspot Shield, because it is a unified email send out to users of both products.
You can look at all of the communications for a ticket by logging into the Help Center with your email address and password. Replies to solutions can be made by email, or through the Help Center record for that support ticket.
The support team is very slow to respond. The operatives also don’t seem to have much information. I tried to get more information on the security systems Betternet uses, over a series of emails. Each reply took about a day to come back and contained no useful information. Replies are vague and short.
The promotional text for the Premium service claims that support responses are faster for its users than for users of the free version. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Responses are equally slow and vague on the paid service.
Whether you’re happy with just using the free VPN, want to try the free trial of the Premium service, or want to dive straight in and pay for a subscription, your first port of call is the free app. You download the software by clicking on the “Download App” button in the top menu of the site.
The install file downloads immediately. Click on the downloaded file to run the installer. You’ll end up with the free app running on your computer. That’s it. You don’t need to set up an account or log in – you’re good to go. There are no settings to adjust and you can’t select a protocol or a server location. You just press the Connect button to turn the VPN on.
When the VPN is engaged, the shield will look happy. Probably because it is thinking about all the money the company is making letting third parties rifle through your computer.
For those of you who haven’t had enough of getting your devices raided, you can kick it up a notch. Reach to the top right of the happy shield and click on the “Go Premium” crown to get the paid package.
Go for the “Try Free” option first. Although this leads on to the costly monthly subscription, you can always cancel your account and then open a new one on the yearly plan if you want Betternet to fleece you long term.
Click on the green button for the free trial. This opens up a page in your default browser, where you’ll have to fill in your credit card details.
Once your credit card has been authorized, the cartoon shield on the website turns happy and green. Check your inbox for an invoice from Betternet. Don’t worry – it’s a bill for $0. The possession of your payment details transforms the app shield into a royally-garbed sleeper.
The Betternet App
As a Premium customer, you get controls on the app that aren’t available on the free service. However, you can’t choose a VPN protocol. You also can’t specify whether you want to use Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) or User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Nor can you select a port. Furthermore, there’s no cloaking technology to turn on. There isn’t a kill switch, or an IP switcher either. You don’t have the option of changing your DNS server and you can’t check on IPv4 or IPv6 leak protection. You can select a server.
Click on a server location, then on the Connect button in the main screen to see the list of available servers.
If you want to switch server locations, you just have to click on a new server. You don’t have to disconnect before switching servers and reconnecting.
Betternet’s VPN Performance (Speed, DNS, WebRTC, and IPv6 Tests)
Speed tests were performed from Nottingham, UK, using testmy.net. For each category, I performed five tests. The first test run examined the speed of an unprotected (baseline) connection. This measured the performance of a Virgin Media internet service on a connection to London. The next two test conditions connected to London through Betternet servers.
There’s no indication within the app of which VPN protocol was employed for the tests or whether it used TCP or UDP. The website FAQ page states that the VPN uses OpenVPN, employing Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with a 256-bit key.
The first VPN test connected with the Betternet server in London. The second ran through the server in the Netherlands.
The last tests measured the performance of a connection to New York, USA, both without a VPN and with the Betternet server in New York engaged.
The graphs show the highest, lowest, and average speeds for each server and location. See our full speed test explanation for more detail.
In all cases, the VPN slowed download speeds considerably. However, upload speeds were almost in range. In the UK tests, the UK Betternet server brought down the average connection speed from 48.20 Mbps to 18.62 Mbps. The Dutch server fared a little better. Its average download speed over five tests was 29.86 Mbps. The performance on a transatlantic connection was worse than the UK one. The unprotected connection from the UK to the US achieved an average speed of 38.78 Mbps. The Betternet New York server brought the average download speed down to 7.82 Mbps.
In the upload tests, the UK and Dutch servers almost reached the speeds experienced without a VPN. On the transatlantic tests, the Betternet VPN’s average speed was 25% slower than the average upload speed measured on a connection without a VPN.
IP Leaks and DNS Leaks
The standard BestVPN.com tests include checks for IPv6 leaks. However, Virgin Media does not use IPv6 addresses, so I wasn’t able to perform those tests. I checked for IPv4 and DNS leaks with the sites ipleak.net and doileak.net. I accessed these sites while I was connected to the Betternet London server through the app. In both tests, Betternet did very well. There were no IP leaks or DNS leaks during these tests. However, the danger of Betternet leaks lies with the Chrome and Firefox extensions.
You’ll read more about the browser extensions that Betternet offers later in this review. The Chrome browser extension resulted in a DNS leak, where my ISP’s standard DNS lookup system IP address appeared among the DNS servers used by the VPN server. This did not occur with the app version. The browser version also leaked my local IP address through Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC). This is a system that is built into browsers to facilitate voice and video calls and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing.
The Firefox implementation is a total disaster. I didn’t even need to look into whether or not the system was protecting against DNS or WebRTC leaks, because my real IP address was still visible after I turned the browser VPN on. It gave me no protection at all.
I tried to access US streaming services from the UK by using the VPN to mask my true location. Thus, I turned on the Chrome browser VPN with the US selected as a server location.
Although I have a Netflix subscription, I was unable to watch any shows at that site because the proxy detection system spotted that I was using a VPN. The ABC website realized that I wasn’t in the US, so it saw right through the VPN. NBC.com let me watch a show while I was using the Betternet Chrome extension. Just to make sure that NBC wasn’t letting anyone in, I turned off the VPN and visited the site again. This time, I was blocked for being overseas.
To check that iplocation.net wasn’t misreporting my location as the US when I had selected the UK as a server location, I turned on the VPN with the UK server and tried the NBC site again. It let me watch a show. That demonstrates that the UK server in the browser extension is actually in the US.
I connected to the New York server in the app to see if that would have a better chance of getting me into Netflix and ABC. The app performed a little better than the browser extension. Netflix spotted the VPN and blocked access to content but ABC didn’t see that I was in the UK and let me watch a show. However, the VPN slowed down the connection so much that the playback soon froze.
The Betternet app is available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android devices. The browser extension is available for Chrome and Firefox.
The browser extensions are dragging the performance of the VPN service down. It is difficult to understand why the company doesn’t just drop them. Premium users don’t get access to all available servers with either of the browser extensions, but continue with the same service that the free users experience.
The Firefox implementation should be deleted. Nothing works with the Betternet Firefox add-on. The company knows about these problems. It has posted advice on its FAQ page on how to fix errors with the program.
The graphics of the extension indicate that this is an older version of the VPN. It is similar to an earlier design used for the app.
When you connect to the VPN, it copies an unusual string of text into the proxy server settings of your browser. This value is supposed to be the address of a proxy server. However, the text that goes in there is in a non-compliant format, so your browser is unable to contact any web server anywhere. This is because the browser diverts all of its traffic to the URL given in the proxy settings. If that URL leads nowhere, you browser comes to a dead end.
Worse still, a pop-up will repeatedly prompt you for a proxy username and password. This error message relates to a call to a web address, 987607.biz. This is clearly a part of the Betternet code, even though that URL is not registered to the company but to a registration service. Whois reports that this URL is hosted at the Leaseweb server in Manassas, Virginia. This server is also used by Betternet for its VPN.
Firefox Extension Fixes
The FAQ page on the company’s website has a solution for this, which is to go into the browser settings and specify “No proxy.”
This fix enables the browser to connect to the internet. This should indicate that the proxy has been disabled. However, the proxy error message still appears. As such, the Betternet VPN must be able to divert traffic to its own server through some other method.
Ironically, the first indication that something is wrong with the VPN’s procedures comes when it tries to open Betternet’s homepage to show you an advert. The add-on uses a non-existent web address – better-net.com. The people who wrote the add-on hard-coded in the wrong URL for the company’s site. Betternet’s management must have seen this, so it’s difficult to understand why they didn’t just change that line of code. Given that the company’s revenue relies on being able to show adverts to users, it seems that the business is losing income by failing to pay a few bucks to a junior developer for 10 minutes’ work to fix the error.
Finally, if you happen to get the VPN working and you are able to surf to a website, you’ll wish that you hadn’t. A quick check with iplocation.net showed me that the Firefox add-on VPN hadn’t changed my IP address. So, the add-on just fooled around with my browser settings, blocked access to the entire web, tried to show me a non-existent website, then gave me no protection at all.
If you are looking to stay secure when surfing the internet with a Firefox browser, we recommend taking a look at our top 5 VPNs for Firefox.
The CSIRO’s View
Betternet is owned by Anchor Free, which also owns Hotspot Shield.
The CSIRO report contains a clue to the bizarre behavior of the Betternet Firefox extension:
Another observation of Hotspot Shield in the CSIRO report concerns traffic redirection.
The CSIRO explains this further:
“AnchorFree’s VPN app Hotspot-Shield performs redirection of e-commerce traffic to partnering domains. When a client connects through the VPN to access specific web domains, the app leverages a proxy that intercepts and redirects the HTTP requests to partner websites with the following syntax:
“As a result, users’ traffic is relayed through two organizations before reaching alibaba.com: AnchorFree and dpbolvw.net, a domain owned by valueclick.com or Conversant Media, an online advertising company.”
The proxy server that Betternet enters into the settings of the Firefox browser would enable the company to control all incoming code and outgoing requests, redirecting calls for inserted adverts to its own advertising server. This is also how the VPN company could modify URLs to add affiliate codes onto the end of them.
In the case of the Chrome extension, the server selection process is muddled. Although this implementation allows free users access to a server in the UK as well as a server in the US, it rarely works. Nine times out of ten when I used the browser extension to connect to the Betternet UK server, iplocation.net reported my location as the US. This put me in the bizarre situation of trying to access the BBC iPlayer from within the UK and being locked out because I appeared to be in the USA, even though I had engaged a UK VPN server.
The Chrome version of the Betternet extension isn’t as full of bugs as the Firefox version. The graphics are coordinated with the current version of the app, indicating that the Chrome extension has been rewritten, whereas the Firefox version hasn’t.
The Chrome extension opens a tab displaying the Betternet website when you turn on the VPN. The extension takes over your Chrome browser’s proxy settings when it’s turned on. It doesn’t put an erroneous address into the proxy address settings.
The control of browser proxy settings is not unusual or suspicious – most VPN browser extensions, including Windscribe and TunnelBear, do this. The problem with letting Betternet do this is that it has been revealed to employ underhand tactics to earn revenue.
Despite the problems with the UK server selection rarely connecting to a UK server, the Chrome extension is a lot more competent than its Firefox counterpart.
Betternet Review: Conclusion
The Betternet app is not that bad. Most of the advertising occurs off the browser extension. For example, every time you connect to the server through the browser extension, a new tab opens up to show you the Betternet website. The company states on its website that its revenue comes from recommending apps and showing ads. I didn’t encounter either during the week that I spent using the VPN in order to write this review.
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- One-week free trial
- Free VPN
- Easy-to-use app
I wasn’t so sure about:
- Encryption and security methods
- Slows connections
- No kill switch
- IP leaks
- DNS leaks
- Broken Firefox add-on
- Chrome extension sends UK traffic to US server
- No protection from Firefox extension
- Third party access to users’ computers
- Lack of responsibility for third party actions
- Excessive monitoring software
- Malware inclusion
- Willingness to cooperate with court orders
- 50 MB data limit for refund
- Terrible customer support
Unfortunately, there is one more piece of bad news. This takes me back to my recommendation that you not install this VPN, let alone pay for the Premium version.
The CSIRO study on VPNs found that Betternet included more tracking libraries than any other VPN available for Android. The CSIRO also checked VPNs for inclusion of malware. They detected 13 incidences of malware in a Betternet install. Although two other VPNs contained more malware, they have both since gone out of business. This makes Betternet the joint worst VPN for malware inclusion in the industry (along with Super VPN). Add on Betternet’s inclusion of more tracking libraries than any other VPN, and this service wins the title of the worst VPN in the world.