Most public networks use what’s called a Captive Portal—it’s the authorization page where you accept the place’s terms and click “Connect” to access their free Wi-Fi. The problem is, many modern browsers have issues redirecting to these captive portals because of new security protocols.
Without getting overly-technical, this issue happens because of the wide adoption of HTTPS on all websites, not just ones that transmit private data. A protocol called HSTS (HTTP Strict Transport Security) forces browsers to use HTTPS on all sites—even ones that just use HTTP.
So, when you connect to public Wi-Fi, the request for access is intercepted and redirected to the captive portal. Oftentimes this works just fine and you can go on about your business. But sometimes this redirect is blocked by the browser because it attempts to redirect the request to HTTPS before it tries to connect to the server—this is a security measure. In short, it sees this redirect as potentially harmful and blocks it without any interaction from the user.
The solution is to essentially “force” a redirect by using a site that doesn’t use any security protocols—basically doing things the way they used to be in the dark days of the internet. Just a pure, unencrypted, unsecured connection that will simply allow a redirect.
It just so happens that there’s a site just for such an occasion: Never SSL. So, if you’re connected to a public network but you’re not getting the captive portal redirection, simply open a browser window and type the following:
That’s literally it—you should automatically be redirected to the captive portal where you can accept the terms and go on with your business. If you’re interested in a deeper look at why HSTS breaks captive portal redirection, there’s a good writeup at Wireless Phreak.
Maybe one day captive portals will modernize to the point where they’ll actually work with HTTPS and HSTS, but until that day, this is the solution we have. At least it’s something.
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