You have many options for protecting your privacy and anonymity on the internet. A web proxy server is unquestionably one of them.
Look, we’re not going to pretend we think proxies are a good idea. Yes, running your web traffic through an anonymous proxy server masks your IP address and physical location, but that’s all it does.
Data routed through an anonymous proxy is not encrypted. If you send anything sensitive through a proxy, it’s out in the open for everyone to see, including the owner of the proxy. It’s a lot like the Monty Python sketch where the guy hides from a sniper behind the only bush in a wide-open field.
AllAnonymity has never wavered in our conviction that a VPN is the best way to stay secure online. But we don’t know your life. You might have a personal reason to prefer a proxy server.
Maybe you need an extremely cheap security solution. Maybe you don’t need to do anything riskier than watching regionally blocked content. Maybe you failed to pay a witch for a potion and she put a curse on you so that you could never use a VPN.
Or maybe you’re a business that needs to access websites to gather user data, but those websites block any business IP address.
Admittedly, that’s the least likely reason you’re here (maybe second-least), but it’s the number-one reason you’ll ever see a web proxy service offered without an attached VPN.
Whether you’re considering using a proxy server, or worried about other people using a proxy server against you, here are five things you need to know about these second-fiddle security solutions.
1. The Best Proxy Server Respects Your Privacy
As mentioned above, proxy servers aren’t encrypted. The administrator of the server can see all your traffic and where it came from (i.e. you). That means the most important trait in a proxy server is being trustworthy. Never give any web proxy the time of day, free or paid, unless it has a spotless record of keeping its users’ secrets.
Beyond that, look for proxies with consistent uptime. There’s nothing worse than getting comfy for your favorite Britcom, only to find out that your UK server isn’t responding.
Other perks to look for include a friendly user interface, easy download, a robust list of spoofable locations and multiple protocols (having more protocols makes a web proxy useful in a wider range of situations).
Finally, check to see if the proxy will slow down your internet connection by running a speed test while connected to one of its servers (use the free trial, if they offer one).
2. VPN vs Proxy: VPN Wins Every Time
It can be hard to tell these two security measures apart, as they’re often mentioned in the same breath. Both a proxy and a VPN service offer anonymous browsing on the internet by hiding your IP address.
When you use a proxy or VPN, whenever you request access to a website, it appears to be coming from another location. This hides your activities from advertisers, hackers and overreaching governments. It’s like getting off at a different bus stop so the creepy guy in the back (we’ll call him Dave) doesn’t find out where you live.
But what if Creepy Dave gets off the bus with you and follows you all the way to your street, trying to get you to invest in his MLM? You’re going to want another layer of security. That’s what a VPN offers.
An anonymous proxy launders your connection through third-party IP addresses, but other than that, it’s the exact same internet you’re using unprotected. In contrast, a VPN connects you to its servers using an encrypted tunnel that can’t be traced from the outside (hence why some people refer to a VPN connection as “tunneling”).
Imagine you’re throwing down smoke bombs every few yards as you flee from Creepy Dave, ninja style. It doesn’t help him to know where you started, because now he can’t see where you’re going or what you’re doing.
So, is there any reason to choose a proxy over a VPN service provider? Not really. That said, we’ll be judging the best proxy servers against the other proxies out there, not against VPN services. Just remember as you read that we don’t believe any of these hold a candle to an average VPN service.
3. Businesses Use Proxy Servers to Gather Data on You
Most of the time you stumble on a reputable, well-reviewed proxy service, it’s not marketed to you at all. One glance at the pricing makes that clear. Oxylabs proxy servers start at $180 per month, and that’s the reasonable option.
The real customers for these proxy networks? Businesses.
Nowadays, reliable market research requires so much data that simply gathering it is a full-time job. The easiest way to get that data is for a business to use a scraper: a program you can let loose on a website to gather all data of a certain type. For example, a company could deploy an army of Twitter scrapers to report on users who mentioned keywords related to their products.
But there’s a catch. Knowing that businesses use scrapers to do competitor research, many websites block any IP address associated with a business.
So how is a company supposed to get that sweet, sweet data? Obviously, by donning an impenetrable disguise.
By rerouting data through proxy IPs that seem to belong to private residences, researchers can slip their data scrapers through the dragnet, Trojan-horse style.
Proxy servers offered by companies like Oxylabs and Luminati offer several subscription tiers. You can send your data crawler traffic through a random datacenter, which is cheaper, but might get you caught. For a bit more money, a crawler can gather data with its very own residential IP address, just like a human.
If a certain user is doing nothing but browsing pages, it’s often hard to tell whether they’re a human or a bot. That’s why most websites catch bots by restricting certain IPs, rather than trying to search and destroy them one by one. Scrapers don’t need the extra protection of a VPN because they’re not sharing any suspicious information.
Individual users, on the other hand, really should seek out that additional security. Knowing that this sort of skulduggery is out there makes it all the more important to take common-sense steps to protect yourself.
4. Free Proxy Servers Are Safe to Use (at Least Some of Them)
Unlike large-scale paid proxy networks, the best free proxy servers are intended for use by Joe and Jane Q. Internet. They provide a basic privacy solution with a few different use cases:
- You can get around a content ban at a school or workplace.
- You can access region-locked content from another country, or from your home country while traveling abroad.
- You can enjoy a basic, though far from Dave-proof, level of security.
All that said, you might be suspicious about routing your internet traffic through a free proxy server, and you’d be right. The owner of the proxy can mess with you in all sorts of ways. It’s the reason so many websites block Tor connections — the nodes of the famous “onion router” are maintained by volunteers with no background checks whatsoever.
When the proxy is free, it’s quadruply important to make sure it has a good reputation. Here are a few we can vouch for.
- Simple to use
- Server options in five countries
- Can encrypt URLs, disable cookies & remove scripts
- Does not encrypt traffic beyond the URL
- Uneven privacy record
It says a lot that our favorite free proxy is an ad for a VPN. HideMyAss offers a simple proxy you can use in your browser without having to download or install anything. Just paste the URL into the bar, choose what national server you want to spoof, and get started.
- Browser extension included
- Paste & go interface
- Only two server options
- Significantly reduces speed
- Related VPN is underwhelming
Hidester is another copy-and-paste, in-browser, free proxy that simplifies things even further by giving you two server choices: United States and Europe. Like HideMyAss, Hidester is paste and go. Most websites you visit will slow way down, but if you absolutely have to get around a content blocker, Hidester is a quick-and-dirty solution.
- Attached to a powerful, free VPN
- Trustworthy security
- Only three server options
- Poor speeds for streaming
- Little functionality without using the VPN
This free proxy from VPN company Hide.me works a lot like the others: enter a URL, choose a server and go. It’s noteworthy, though, because it is piggybacking off a VPN that also offers a strong free plan. While it doesn’t top any of our lists, we give Hide.me credit for consistently putting security ahead of profit.
5. Have We Mentioned You Should Use a VPN? Here Are the 5 Best VPNs
In case we haven’t been obvious enough about it, a VPN offers better security than a proxy in every situation. Unless your school or office network literally prevents you from downloading anything, you should use a VPN.
The cynical among you (and you should be cynical — this is the internet) might now be suspicious that we’re shilling for a particular VPN company. And while we do have a favorite, we’d like to use this section to highlight the wide range of high-quality VPNs on the market.
ExpressVPN hits all the high notes: it’s lightning-fast, great for streaming, tightly encrypted with AES-256 security and offers a forgiving 30-day free trial. However, its plans are quite pricey, but the VPN is worth it if you can afford it.
NordVPN is one of the most secure VPN options out there, especially with its Double-hop servers. It’s also great for torrenting, has an easy-to-use kill switch and boasts the best value over multi-year plans.
CyberGhost suffers slower speeds when using the most secure OpenVPN protocol, but improves significantly on the slightly shakier IKEv2. This makes it perfect for low-risk situations — and it’s also cheap. In other words, it’s a proxy killer.
4. Private Internet Access (PIA)
Hands down the best value you’ll find for a VPN, PIA has way more features than you’d expect on such a cheap service, but also nails the fundamentals (security and speed).
5. WindscribeWindscribe’s free version handles 10GB of traffic per month, and comes with all the features. If your app budget is stretched too thin to pay anything at all, Windscribe won’t let you down.
Final Thoughts on Proxies
To conclude, we’d like to pull back just a little on the heated rhetoric. To tell the truth, we don’t believe that ALL VPNs are superior to ALL proxies.
Consider the case of IPVanish, a VPN that was found in 2016 to keep logs of user activity despite pinky-swearing not to. A VPN that spies on your personal activity and saves records of it is about the purest example there is of a fox guarding the hen house. It actively makes you less secure.
But even in that case, proxies aren’t the solution. Stick with VPNs until you find one that works. There are free plans that will give you what you need. There are affordable paid plans that do basically everything. As long as you explore, you’re sure to find what you need.
Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite VPN we didn’t mention — or if you know the one web proxy server that will redeem the whole species — we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.