Fundamentally, people connect to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxies for two primary purposes: to conceal their internet activity and to gain access to geographically restricted online content. To some degree, VPNs and proxies fulfill both these needs. Yet they do so to different degrees and in different ways.
A proxy is a second computer or server that acts as an intermediary between a computer or device (possibly yours) and the internet. For instance, if you wanted to access German content from Canada, you could do so by connecting to a German proxy. Websites would identify the proxy device by its German IP, and you’d likely be receiving local content.
Yet proxies are subject to a number of limitations that VPN services are not. These restrictions can often lead to problems related to performance and security. So which is best for you? Let’s find out.
Accessing Restricted Content
As I stated above, proxies located in different locations of the world can provide the necessary tools for users to access foreign content, but not all of it. Proxies are limited by several different factors, the first being the type of proxy.
HTTP Proxy Servers
There are two main kinds of proxies. The first is called an HTTP Proxy Server. As you might have guessed, it deals specifically with protocols handled by HTTP and HTTPS. As a result, most websites can be fooled into believing that your IP address is that of the proxy. Other services, on the other hand, won’t be affected. You won’t be able to watch foreign Netflix or Hulu with an HTTP Proxy Server.
SOCKS Proxy Servers
The second type of proxy is known as a SOCKS Proxy Server. Unlike its HTTP counterpart, it does work with other types of connections (including things such as Netflix). Yet because most servers are public, performance is frequently limited and unreliable at best. Information is also not encrypted, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Virtual Private Networks
VPNs are a different story. While they aren’t free like the proxies above (never trust a VPN you don’t pay for), they work for all kinds of internet traffic and they do so without majorly handicapping performance. These paid VPN services (look to Secure Thoughts for more information) offer support for their services and are likely your best option.
Unlike proxy servers, VPN services usually have a multitude of different servers for subscribers to use. That means not having to search for a new proxy every time you want to see content from a different region of the world.
Besides dealing with restricted content, security is another major issue that separates VPNs and proxies.
Anonymity and Safety
Proxies are by no means a bad thing. They help countless individuals reach the content they would have never had access to every day. Where they majorly run into trouble is on the front of security. Proxy servers are rarely (if ever) encrypted and they only really function as a point to bounce information from one point to another.
In countries with government lockdown of the internet, a proxy does very little to circumvent censorship. Worse yet, companies looking to save money by restricting their users’ freedom are also unaffected by proxies, as many can simply bring up a log of user activity. As I mentioned earlier, some websites can also use clever tricks to identify your IP address even behind a proxy.
VPNs are not completely clear of problems, but they do a much better job when it comes to handling the security of their users. A VPN service creates a direct channel between the subscriber and the service. In doing so, it encrypts all traffic (both coming and going) in a way that keeps both hackers and government away from your activities.
It might not seem like a critical detail, but understand what logs can be used for. Governments that are looking to oppress users or limit their rights can subpoena a company for its records. Even if the organization in question has no intention of hurting their customers, keeping logs can lead to some major future problems.
Reliability and Pricing
The last things to consider in the realm of VPNs and proxies fall into the categories of reliability and pricing. You will get exactly what you pay for when it comes to these services.
Virtually all proxies are free. Very few require any form of payment from the user. They make up for this by cutting corners. In some cases, browser-based proxies secretly use their service as an ad delivery platform.
On occasion, a proxy is set up to help other users out of good will, but that also means that the proxy isn’t likely to be as well-maintained. A simple lack of resources can mean very little goes into upkeep and infrastructure.
As VPNs usually require some form of payment, they tend to be better maintained and have dedicated customer support teams. Multiple servers also afford companies the chance to spread bandwidth usage out for cases when too many users are connected at once (something that you won’t find with proxies). They’re simply more flexible with their service.
What has your experience been like? Have you ever used a proxy or VPN before? Do you have any particular recommendations? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.