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VPN vs PROXY– The difference a highly anonymous proxy makes

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A web proxy, or website unblocker, is a free anonymizing service that carries out an IP hide in order to conceal your computer's actual location. This is achieved by routing your browser's traffic through a remotely located proxy server, which may be accessed through a hosting proxy website or, in the case of IP proxies, directly from your browser.

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Some proxies also encrypt the connection. A personal VPN is also an IP hide technology but routes all internet communication from your computer through its server, not just that of your browser – this confers benefits of performance and security, benefits that are enhanced by strong encryption, and by certain features now offered by the leading VPN providers. Personal VPNs require a software download and a paid subscription to use.

It is only recently that a comparison between a personal VPN and other web proxies is at all relevant. In times past, the VPN was not widely known of outside of corporate networks, and not widely needed, as simple proxies were plenty capable of performing anonymity tasks. As times moved on, however, these free online unblockers began to face more challenges – many censors adapted their filter systems to detect and block proxy use and the proxies themselves grew slow through over use. As ever, however, proxy developers rose to the challenge and began to implement more advanced ways of bypassing filters and switching through different proxies to avoid internet and server traffic. This led to the development of an encrypted version of the proxy (an SSL unblocker) as well as IP proxies, both of which managed to keep the proxies fulfilling some of their functionality in the face of modern-day challenges.

While this struggling evolution of the free proxy was going on, personal VPNs were starting to become more widely available and more user-friendly: a user no longer required a high level of anonymity network knowledge to set up a VPN, as custom client software provided an easy front-end interface. For the first time, users found themselves able to make a choice: when placed alongside one another, which should they turn to: a free web proxy or a subscription-based personal VPN?

Today, the VPN vs Proxy comparison is more complicated than ever – as both anonymity network technologies succeed in performing similar tasks. Consequently, few users are aware of just how superior the VPN highly anonymous proxy is. Here we will look at the important differences between the two technologies when they are put to work in the roles they were developed for.

VPN vs proxy: how to access geo-restricted video sites

The superiority of the VPN's highly anonymous proxy service (like idcloak's fast VPN) over free online unblockers is most easy to see when it comes to unblocking websites that do not permit foreign access (e.g. some parts of BBC iPlayer and ITVPlayer).

Systems are put in place by these sites to deny service to computers originating from foreign IP addresses – primarily because of the geo-restrictions of media distribution rights. To enforce this locals-only policy, the sites are also built to prevent domestic access from proxy servers based inside the country – since a proxy's prime function is to allow foreign visitors to mask the fact they are based abroad. Video site blocking systems have lately become so good at this job that not even the best SSL unblockers (a.k.a. HTTPS proxy) can fool them. Top VPN providers like idcloak.com, prevent detection by employing behind-the-scenes manipulation of your connection data (known as HTTP/S headers) – something other proxies, and low-grade VPNs, do not. Not only do the better VPNs replace your IP address with one from their VPN servers (as any HTTP/S proxy will do), but they additionally strip the two HTTP/S headers fields that are used by the firewalls of video sites to identify and shut out proxies: namely the X_Forwarded_For and HTTP_VIA headers.

The result is, to any site you are visiting, that it appears you are actually based in the country where your VPN server is based – and the geo-restrictions are effectively bypassed.

VPN vs proxy: blocked website unblocker

A high-grade VPN is just as good at breaking out of censorship systems as it is at breaking in. Even the Great Firewall of China can be circumvented by VPN users. All free proxies inevitably end up being detected and shut down in a matter of hours by the Golden Shield censors, as this state-funded army of monitors have excellent information sources and filter systems in place to identify and block proxy IP addresses. Consequently internet users inside the PRC who use these free online unblockers are forced to change proxy servers every few hours. Standard proxies and low-grade VPNs generally both fail to bypass China's great firewall because their IP addresses quickly find their way onto the country's blacklists. Only VPNs with a highly anonymous proxy service facilitated by dedicated IP addresses offer a reliable solution on how to remove internet blocking. These dedicated IPs are not shared with multiple proxy users, and not attributable to a subnet of IPs, so are never spotted by censors. A thorough explanation of how they work can be found here: How to set up VPN - Dedicated IP or IP Switching.

VPN vs proxy: anonymity, security and privacy online

VPNs have an impressive anonymity record for two widely-known reasons. One, most of them offer robust encryption to the proxy server (especially if using OpenVPN).

Second, VPNs will anonymize absolutely all your device's internet activity, so you are not relying exclusively on your browser for IP anonymity. Your IP address will be masked on local emails, IMs, iStore connections, automatic software updates, torrents... simply everything. Free online unblockers with SSL also offer a high level of encryption, it is true, but they will only anonymize browser-based communication. This can leave your computer vulnerable to attack, since many applications nowadays communicate directly through the internet outside of the browser, and communication from these applications will still carry your real IP address. Another feature exclusive to specialist VPNs is that the proxy servers manipulate headers for all your requests, inserting obfuscating information about your operating system, browser type and language settings etc.

This is an important security addition, as hackers or cyber thieves may use headers to collect information about your computer and software. This information can then be used to plan a targeted attack on you for identity fraud or other nefarious purposes. When that header information is changed or removed, however, the only information that may suggest you are using a proxy is the proxy IP address.

VPN vs proxy: performance

The VPN is especially superior to the standard proxy where performance is concerned. For one, because it tunnels all activity from your device to its servers, VPN access to even the most complex sites does not result in compatibility issues. But when using a free proxy to access social media sites like Facebook, or video sites like YouTube, such sites often suffer a loss of functionality because the HTTP/S capabilities are not strong or flexible enough to support the complex programming. It is the speed of standard web proxies that really sees them fall, however. Modern expectations of internet access speed are very high as internet routing latency is constantly improving.

Free proxies, especially of the highly anonymous proxy type, are infernally slow and prone to heavy over-congestion. Some low-grade VPNs with poor network infrastructure also suffer lag, or even download limits; but with fast VPNs that offer intelligent routing, load distribution and client hide IP software (see: VPN software – why custom VPN software is best) a user is always running reliable connection to the fast VPN servers. Load distribution, working in conjunction with special client hide IP software, always ensures that the user will connect to the fastest VPN proxy server.

VPN vs proxy: conclusion

Though the free proxy does still cling onto a place in the blocked website unblocker market, even in this unblocking role the VPN is by far the more reliable technology. When it comes to online privacy protection and performance, however, the secure and fast VPN is simply in a different league altogether. This fact, combined with the improved usability and availability of high-grade VPNs, has led to users gradually realising that the proxy is fast becoming a passe technology. Naturally, the growing number of VPN users is testament to this realisation.

Written by: 
Robin Welles; internet security team, expats team