The past several days have seen an Internet firestorm erupt over a “free” service offered by Israeli VPN start-up Hola, which offers a popular service that allows users to hide their actual location on the Internet.
Hola users, according to the company’s terms of service (ToS) are expected to “contribute” bandwidth, which Hola then sells for commercial purposes.
For this, Hola has been accused by irate Internet users of running a “botnet,” a distributed network often put to nefarious use by hackers and other net “undesirables.” According to the owner of a site called 8chan, which has been accused of, among other things, running message boards for pedophiles, “An attacker used the network to send thousands of legitimate-looking POST requests to 8chan’s post.php in 30 seconds, representing a 100x spike over peak traffic and crashing PHP-FPM.”
Hola provides a free service — in this case, a way for users to watch video and access sites anywhere in the world — in exchange for bandwidth instead of money. Such bandwidth can be used, for example, for a distributed processing network, in which underutilized processing power in private and public cloud environments allow users to build a big, strong network to crunch big data.
A good example of such a service is BOINC (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) type programs like Seti@Home, which uses the idle processing power of members of its network to analyze radio signals from outer space, in the hope of finding intelligent life out there. Seti@Home is one of dozens of similar networks that use home computers to analyze everything from scientific data to mathematical problems to finding a cure for cancer.
However, distributed networks can also be used for more nefarious purposes — and that seems to be what at least one client has done on Hola’s commercial distributed processing network, Luminati. According to the admins of 8chan, they were attacked by large numbers of connections aimed at overwhelming the site (a sort of denial-of-service attack), which they traced to Luminati.
Hola has now been accused by many in the online community for running a “botnet.” The issue has been brewing on the Internet for the past several days, to the extent that a site called TorrentFreak reached out to Hola founder Ofer Vilenski, who did not deny that the company sold bandwidth to support itself — and that, in fact, the company’s terms of service and FAQ state so very clearly.
“We have always made it clear that Hola is built for the user and with the user in mind. We’ve explained the technical aspects of it in our FAQ and have always advertised in our FAQ the ability to pay for non-commercial use,” Vilenski told TorrentFreak.
Several tech sites noted, however, that the FAQ was only updated after the accusations of botnet use were made by 8chan. Vilenski did not address that in the interview.