VPNs: Not a Guarantee to Internet Access

When reporting on a story, I typically know that I’m working with an alluring narrative when I suddenly start unearthing new, unexpected topics in the midst of research. There is a boost of adrenaline that comes from the intellectual discovery, which in turn propels the story forward. That’s how a lot of my stories in China have been written over the past 14 months — with a dash of curiosity at first, followed by an energizing push that stems the storyline outward.

Through these cerebral cycles, I’ve absorbed a lot of information during my stay in China; not just about language and generic contemporary culture, either. Most recently, I’ve been having trouble with my VPN (virtual private network), software that can be bought to secure a remote location for your IP address, a tool necessary for jumping the so-called Great Firewall (thus accessing banned websites).

After I started exchanging emails with The New York Times about two weeks ago (currently the best catalyst I can think of), despite my VPN being turned on, I started experiencing some serious difficulties with my Internet browsers: Safari could not connect to my Gmail or any banned sites, such as Facebook, my WordPress account or Youtube; Firefox couldn’t access any of these sites either, with the exception of my Gmail account that would only load if I used it in HTML mode; and, the final browser on my computer, Google Chrome managed to load the group of banned sites, yet came up empty handed with Gmail access. The result: for nearly five days I had to open Firefox to access my email — which I could only view in HTML! — and Google Chrome to surf the Internet.

As of today, however, my Internet accessibility has returned to normal. In the end, the incident highlights two central truths about using the Internet in China: a) using a VPN does not guarantee a cure-all pass and b) a security breach can occur for an arbitrary amount of time, most likely to vet your situation, before (if at all) returning to normal.

Sometimes the particular VPN you are using may not have the ability to bypass barriers put in place. For example, over a year ago, about the time when I first came to the mainland, I purchased a VPN from www.12vpn.com. The portal worked fine for a few weeks before I noticed that I could no longer access Facebook. This severed bridge in my newly bought freedom irritated me for a week before I pursued the situation by calling in advice from the California-based company.

I post the emails we exchanged below for posterity:

2/11/10

Me:

I am writing from Shanghai and have been using this VPN for about a month. It has worked well but when I went to reinstall it I discovered that I can no longer access Facebook. I can still use Youtube, Myspace and WordPress, but for some reason only [Facebook] is disabled.

2/11/10

12vpn:

OK. Please allow me to have a closer look at your system and send me the following two things:

(While connected to the VPN.)

-Right-click the OpenVPN icon in the taskbar.

-Open a Command Prompt and enter the following commands:

ipconfig/all

route print

ipconfig/flushdns

ping facebook.com

nslookup

-Please copy and paste to me the output of those commands.

I then sent him the mess of code that resulted from the command prompt he gave me, a basic DNS (Domain Name System) flush. I also tried reinstalling the software once again, much to no avail.

2/11/10

12vpn:

Fair enough. I’ll do some more research on why your computer chooses to use the wrong DNS. ([According to command prompt], the IP it shows when you ping Facebook belongs to the Department of Defense, not Facebook. Chinese DNS humor… )

Further troubleshooting was conducted involving the toggling of several “advanced settings” bars, once again with no positive conclusion.

2/12/10

12vpn:

Can you try the following command:

net stop dnscache

This turns off DNS caching completely. That makes the Internet slower, but it can help us learn more about the actual problem. It’s not a permanent change. A reboot or a start command sets it back to normal.

I turned off my computer’s DNS caching, which did indeed make my computer slower — and again, Facebook remained blocked.

12vpn:

2/12/10

I take from your answer that it didn’t change the Facebook situation, eh? Hmm. That confirms that the problem is really in the DNS order.

I’ve found a Microsoft article which acknowledges the problem and proposes a solution. But it may be more technical than you’re comfortable with:

http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;311218

At this point, I was not feeling very comfortable performing open surgery on my computer’s registry — a mess up would result in irreversible changes. Why this VPN could not bypass the DNS block put on Facebook I’ll never know. I gave up on the situation and got on my girlfriend’s computer whenever I wanted to use Facebook. Now Astrill is my VPN of choice (on the same computer), and, while I have had encountered problems occasionally (as mentioned above), the service is much more efficient, though equally costly.

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One thought on “VPNs: Not a Guarantee to Internet Access

  1. Pingback: VPNs: Not a Guarantee to Internet Access « Transcending Culture Shock | DNS Internet

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