Thanks in part to what is without doubt some excellent public relations maneuvering, several advertising-supported "free" VPN services have received quite a bit of attention in the media in recent years. I've watched as this business model went from one that seemed doomed to failure at a structural level back in 2008 (when Hotspot Shield was floundering after burning quite a bit of venture money), to the most visible part of the "VPN industry" when it comes to mainstream media mentions.
And free is a great price, right? Google does free search, and they own a big chunk of the revenue and market value on the interwebs as a result of the success of their ad-supported model: free to use, ad supported. There's countless other examples, obviously - and I won't bog this down with academic discussions of the flavours of "free" and the structural dynamics of each. Advert-supported services are all over the place, particularly online. Nothing odd there.
However, when you stop and think about it there's something seriously strange about a privacy service - which is what a VPN service is, after all - choosing the path of advertiser supported revenue. It's like... I'm searching for a good metaphor here... it's like fucking for chastity, or waging war in the name of peace. Oxymoronic, one might be tempted to call it. Self-contradicting.
The idea of a privacy service is to maintain the privacy of one's online activities: from government snoops, from malicious third parties, and from advertisers seeking to profile you by poking their gluttonous noses into every packet you pass back and forth online. As advertising models get more and more intrusive online - yes, Facebook - the third of these items becomes a bigger and bigger part of what motivates folks to step up and add privacy protection to their personal toolkit for online life. This is a pretty well-established trend, at this point in time.
So how the hell does one map ad-supported VPN service into existing reality, then? By definition, the companies offering these services are mining the online activities of their "users" (they aren't customers, as they aren't paying - the actual customers are the advertisers) to help their advertisers better target and monitor the advertising/selling process. How intrusive they are about this - a little more, a little less - sort of isn't the point. The point is that the service is spoon-feeding private online activities directly into the hungry maws of the advertisers, as a core element of the service itself.
At least they're being honest about it, but even so. What are people thinking when they use these services? Is it a lesser of evils thing: "I guess I'll trust this random 'free' VPN service and have them intrusively monitor me so they can batter me with targeted adverts, rather than having Google and Facebook do it if I use my residential IP address and don't bother encrypting my traffic"... is that it? Or is it just a misunderstanding of what's actually going on, brought about by some clever hand-waving by these creepy companies: "we'll protect you from surveillance as you do your thing online... except we'll do surveillance on you ourselves as the price of 'protecting' you from surveillance from others."... is that it? Sort of like: "I'd rather be robbed by this bully than that bully, because this bully seems a little less mean than the other - except isn't the goal not to get robbed?
Anyhow, we're going to collect some examples of ad-supported "privacy" services - with a focus on VPN companies - here in this thread. Perhaps other folks will contribute, and explain why it is that a fairly high number of people are actually using these things - because, honestly, I'm baffled.