Scandinavian software company, Opera, announced today a free VPN (virtual private network) service builtin to their browser apps for Windows and Mac. VPNs are popularly used for securing internet connections and also accessing geo-restricted content. However, in China, VPNs are crucially used to unblock government censored websites caught behind the “Great Firewall”, such as Facebook, Google, and Youtube. The announcement comes at an awkward time as a consortium of Chinese investors are finalizing a $1.2 billion deal to acquire the company.

Opera vs the Great Firewall of China

We were curious to see how Opera’s free VPN offering would fare compared to other well known VPN offerings used here in China. While VPNs are not strictly illegal in China, the government has increased its efforts to detect and block their usage in recent times. Many of the best VPNs for China require special encryption protocols that can evade the sophistication of the Chinese internet filter.

Only hours after the announcement, we downloaded the Development version of the Opera browser for Mac. The builtin 256-bit encryption VPN is only available on this version and not the standard Opera browser. Opera’s website is not currently blocked from our location in southern China. Update: Opera VPN is now blocked in China.

Over the wall

After a quick flip of the switch in the preference settings, the Opera browser VPN quickly connected, as shown by a little blue button in the top left corner. After navigating to Google, to our surprise, Opera’s free service was actually able to get across the Chinese firewall. After a couple of inital tests, we were able to confirm that the Opera browser VPN connection speed was close to some of the well known VPNs used in China — retaining about 70% of maximum non-VPNed download speeds. Youtube was streaming decently and the connection seemed relatively stable.

However this performance was only a couple hours after the announcement. After several more hours had passed, we tested Opera’s VPN again and were faced with longer connection times and slower download speeds. Currently there are no mobile offerings for Opera’s VPN service, so those looking to browse Instagram and the like in China will need to stick to other VPNs.

Uncertain future

Opera’s current market share of browsers sits at a paltry 2%. The offering of a free and unlimited VPN is aimed at attracting new users, particularly in the developing world where content is often geo-restricted. Opera claims that it intends to keep the VPN service free for the foreseeable future. However, in light of the looming Chinese takeover of the software company, it is unlikely that this feature would be enabled within China for users trying to circumvent the government filter.

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