Update 22 January 2015
FrootVPN has now started charging for its service., although at a base price of $4 per month, it is one of the cheapest VPN services available.
Watch out for an updated review of FrootVPN, coming soon.
Last week (23 October 2014) the front page of the Pirate Bay (TPB) website started to display an advertisement for a hitherto unknown VPN service – FrootVPN, which at the time of writing is causing quite a stir online (plus attracting 100,000 new customers in the first couple of days). On the one hand FrootVPN appears to have the endorsement of the TPB team, who have proved themselves many times over as trustworthy defenders of privacy, but on the other hand many people are highly suspicious of a service that claims to be free…
While exceptions and kinks to it do exist, the maxim that ‘if you don’t pay for a product then you are the product’ generally holds true. Running a VPN service is not cheap, so it is worth considering how and why the provider is offering it for free – most ‘free’ VPN services raise revenue through advertising and/or monitoring users’ internet activity so they can sell that information to advertisers (an exception to this model is CyberGhost, which offers an excellent free service that it uses to advertise its paid-for service – this is a useful example, as it demonstrates how a service can offer free VPN while being transparent about how it raises revenue from it.)
FrootVPN on the other hand seems to be offering a free service out of no more than goodness of its owners’ hearts. The website FAQ explains that,
‘The whole idea behind FrootVPN is to provide a free simple VPN service that give every internet user on the planet the right to it’s privacy online. Ofcourse the maintenance and bandwidth isn’t free for these kind of services. But we had some resources over from other project and were able to launch FrootVPN. We will run this service for free as long as we can. But we will eventually need to bring money in to be able to pay our bills.’
Hmm… no wonder many people are suspicious. However, fact that TPB seems to endorse the service has led to 100,000 users signing up for it they first few days. When asked about this endorsement by TorrentFreak, TPB responded that,
‘The FrootVPN promotion is not a paid ad. It’s merely a friendly plug for a startup run by some guys they know.’
It should be noted that TPB is no longer run by the original team, and no-one is sure who is now behind the operation. That said, TPB continues to be a thorn in the side of the authorities, and have displayed nothing other than 100 percent trustworthiness to its users.
Of course, as a publicity stunt to draw in many new users, at least some whom are likely to become paid customers in the future (and FrootVPN says there will be a fee in the future), the whole ‘free’ thing could make sense…
‘The whole idea behind FrootVPN was to provide a free simple VPN service without any bandwidth limitations. Of course the maintenance isn’t free but we had some resources over from our other projects from which we were able to launch FrootVPN. We are a bunch of guys who support freedom of speech and don’t like the idea that VPN providers charge so much money for just a simple proxy, especially since the bandwidth costs nowadays is so cheap.
While a free VPN sounded like a good idea, the VPN service has become a victim of its own success. They gained 100,000 users in less than a week and admit that it’s not sustainable to keep the service free forever. The word has spread rapidly and we thank all our promoters including TPB for supporting us. We got 100,000 users within a week, which we never expected. However, this does indicate that we will be forced to charge something for the service in order to maintain it.’
As the FrootVPN team note above, the service has seen a massive uptake and is inevitably struggling to cope with the huge number of new users. We think that due to such huge interest in it the service is worth reviewing as is, but at least in terms of performance this review should be regarded as ‘early access’ – and things are likely to change rapidly. To this end, FrootVPN told TorrentFreak that it has already bought several new servers to keep up with demand,
‘We have 20x servers running currently with 2x10Gbps total capacity. We have now additionally bought 40x more servers and 4x10Gbps bandwidth from Portlane which will be ready within a week or two. We hope that after this upgrade the quality of our service will be much better.’
Pricing and Features
At present FrootVPN is a free service, although the devs have made it clear this will change. They have however also promised that final pricing will ‘be very low as compared to other providers out in the market.’
Unsurprisingly, the service itself is fairly bare-bones, although users can choose between the PPTP, L2TP and OpenVPN protocols. One feather in FrootVPN’s cap is that it supports IPv6 (when using OpenVPN), something few other providers offer.
There are no bandwidth limitations, and boasting that ‘our servers are connected to multiple 10Gbit/s backbone providing ultra high speed connections around the globe,’ FrootVPN seems confident in its ability to deliver a high quality service.
In keeping with the fact that it is a free service (for now) service, there does not appear to be a limit on the number of devices you can connect at once.*
The website makes no mention of P2P torrent downloading, but given the provider’s relationship with the Pirate Bay, we assume P2P is just fine.
The website and customer support
Aside from some minor formatting issues the website looks smart and is cleanly laid out, if a little unexciting. Information is fairly sparse, but answers to basic questions and clearly explained guides with screenshots are available for most OS/protocol combinations (although there is no OpenVPN for Android for some reason).
Customer support comes in the form of a short Troubleshooting FAQ and an email form. We emailed off a couple of queries (*such as number of simultaneous devices allowed, and whether IPs are shared) but received no answer by the next day. Given the huge number of new members the service must be struggling to cope with this is hardly surprising, so if/when they get back to us we will update this article accordingly).
Security & privacy
Bearing in mind any lingering doubts about how it can afford to offer a free service, and the fact that little in the way of hard information is available on the website, FrootVPN seems to be very privacy minded,
‘We don’t store any kind of data logs on our servers. The VPN user is assigned a new dynamic IP every time he connects to FrootVPN. There is even no time stamp or logs of which IP-address you got assigned.’
… Which sounds great, as long as these dynamic IPs are shared (we are waiting for FrootVPN to get back to us about this).
Like TPB, FrootVPN is based in Sweden, which largely thanks to TPB has a reputation for freedom when it comes to the internet. However as we discuss in this article, although this ‘freedom’ does largely apply in terms of an uncensored internet and a (fairly) relaxed attitude to copyright piracy, government surveillance is a big problem (in 2009 Privacy International ranked Sweden’s privacy protection ‘second worst in EU’), and those worried about ‘big brother’ should probably use a service based elsewhere.
On the technical front everything looks pretty good, although as with elsewhere there is a lack of specificity (again, we are waiting for FrootVPN to answer our queries). The website informs us that OpenVPN uses ‘2048 bit key certificate, 256 bit key encryption,’ L2TP ‘168 bit key encryption’, and PPTP ‘128 bit key encryption’.
The only personally identifiable information FrootVPN asks is for a username and password. As the service is free, there is no need to provide any payment details.
We signed up using a disposable email address, without encountering any problems.
The Windows client
As is common with new providers, FrootVPN relies on devices’ built in VPN clients (PPTP and L2TP), or on the generic open source OpenVPN clients.
We have covered using the Windows OpenVPN client many time before (see here for example), so we won’t go into detail here, but basically you just have to install the client, download the FrootVPN .ovpn file, and copy it into the OpenVPN ‘config’ folder.
There is no choice of server locations (only Sweden)
The basic VPN client is bit bare-bones, lacking bells and whistles such as a VPN kill switch, DNS leak protection, or port forwarding, but it gets the job done, and in our opinion its use is quite acceptable for a new service.
Any platform that supports PPTP, L2TP or OpenVPN can be used, and FrootVPN provides guides for most options using Windows, OSX, Linix/Debian, iOS and Android (although Android users are left on their own to figure out setting up OpenVPN – we have a guide available here).
We tested performance using testmy.net’s Amsterdam, NL, server (the closest to our location), on our 20 MB/s UK broadband connection:
As you can see, these results are not at all bad – especially for a free service that has been inundated with new users!
A quick IP and DNS leak test from IPLeak.net shows that everything is in order.
- It’s free! (everyone’s favorite price)
- Appears to have the blessing of the Pirate Bay team
- Better performance than many paid services
- Claims to be completely no logs
- Unlimited simultaneous devices (we think)
- Good encryption (although we would prefer more details on this)
- Based in Sweden – good for censorship evasion and P2P
- Supports IPv6
- Customer service appears swamped at the moment
We weren’t so sure about
- Uses built-in/generic clients so no bells and whistles (but we can hardly complain about this from a service that is both new and free)
- It’s free! (what’s the catch?)
- Based in Sweden – bad for government surveillance
Given that FrootVPN is free and has very reasonable performance, we are quite impressed with the service. For users who just want to download from the Pirate Bay, or who want a free anti-censorship tool, FrootVPN could be just the thing (downloaders will want to use some form of third party VPN kill switch for maximum protection).
On the other hand, given the question marks over funding, combined with Sweden’s poor record on government surveillance, privacy activists, whistleblowers, tin-hatters, and anyone else worried about being spied on should probably stay clear…