Proxy servers are an often misunderstood technology. If all you read is the marketing copy, you might assume that they let users browse the web anonymously and beat every geographic restriction. The truth is that while proxies are useful in certain situations, for most people, their advantages are few and far between.
We’re here to help cut through the confusion. Our experts have decades of combined experience in computer networking and are uniquely suited to explaining exactly when you should (and shouldn’t) rely on a proxy server. More importantly, we’ll break things down in a beginner-friendly way so that you know exactly what you’re paying for.
PROXY SERVERS – THE SHORT VERSION
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What are proxy servers and how do they work?
Normally, there’s a direct connection between your device and the websites, apps and services you use. They can find out all sorts of information about you, including where you are, your device’s unique IP address, and who your Internet Service Provider is.
A proxy server acts as a middle man who sits between you and the website. All of your web traffic is routed through the proxy server, which is located somewhere else in the world. Sites only see the location and IP address of the proxy server, and not your actual location.
When might I use a proxy server?
Businesses use proxies all the time. Being able to route all of your employees’ internet traffic through a server you control has several major advantages. For instance, you can easily limit the type of content they can access, keep an eye out for signs of suspicious activity, and get a rough idea of where everyone is. It’s also possible to cache frequently-used sites for faster access or automatically manage traffic so that your network never gets overwhelmed with requests.
Sometimes, you’re forced to use a proxy due to hardware limitations. Certain devices (such as Smart TVs) don’t allow you to install security tools like VPNs, so you might settle for a proxy server instead.
Are there any disadvantages to using proxies?
When properly-configured, proxy servers are still useful in certain situations. That said, if you don’t have complete control over the server (for instance, if you’re using a free proxy), there are several major issues to be aware of.
Whoever controls the proxy server can see everything you get up to online, all unencrypted data that you send and receive, and your true IP address. Free proxies often don’t support HTTPS traffic, either, which means you might not be able to use the most secure versions of websites designed to prevent this kind of snooping from happening.
Proxies add an extra step to the path your traffic takes across the internet. As a result, they’ll always reduce your speeds somewhat. Free services have a couple of extra bottlenecks that can worsen this problem. First, they usually only have a few servers, and the further away they are, the higher your latency will be. Additionally, with thousands of users relying on these servers at any given time, the network is prone to congestion. In other words, the proxy may struggle to keep up, resulting in drastically-reduced performance.
They’re fairly easy to detect
Websites have a vested interest in blocking proxies. After all, spoofing your location messes up their audience metrics and streaming sites like Netflix only have the rights to show certain movies in specific countries. You’ll need a VPN for Netflix to overcome this easily.
Unfortunately, proxy servers aren’t great at flying under the radar. If a site notices a huge amount of traffic coming from a single IP address, they can just block it, rendering that server effectively useless. Sites could also cross reference your connection’s latency with nearby users to see if you’re noticeably slower, which could indicate proxy use. Alternatively, sites can just check the request’s headers, which often say that the traffic has been forwarded by a proxy.
Proxies may break certain websites
Proxy servers: Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between a forward and reverse proxy?
Forward proxies are what most people imagine when they think of a proxy server. These sit between the user and the internet, accepting requests and processing them while applying their own rules. For instance, they might block certain websites or search terms.
In contrast, reverse proxies are designed to protect servers or networks from threats coming from the internet. They may reject traffic from specific ports, restrict access to company resources, or simply handle incoming requests to ensure that everyone can access what they need as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Are proxy servers legal?
There are a handful of countries that forbid individuals from using anonymizing tools, but proxies and VPNs remain legal in most of the world. That’s a good thing too, since for many people, they’re near essential. Whether you’re trying to blog anonymously, report from a country with repressive censorship, or stay safe on public wifi, it’s much easier with a VPN.
Disclaimer: Although we’ve spent hours researching this topic, we are not legal experts. As such, nothing we’ve said above should be taken as legal advice. We encourage you to consult local laws or perhaps even seek a professional’s opinion before attempting to use tools like proxies or VPNs if you’re unsure about their legality.
Is a proxy server the same thing as a VPN?
At first glance, proxies and VPNs can seem similar. After all, they both hide your real IP address from the sites you visit. However, there are a few key differences to be aware of.
Proxies usually just forward your requests to websites, substituting your IP address with that of the server. They’re still helpful in specific applications but are from a time before commercial VPNs were readily available, and as we’ll explain below, aren’t anywhere near as good for individuals who want to protect their privacy.
Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, encrypt your internet traffic before sending it through a server somewhere else in the world. For additional peace of mind, good VPN providers refuse to keep any identifying logs of what you do online while connected. This way, they can’t reveal details of your activities even in the face of legal threats.
That’s not all. Many VPNs now include more advanced features than a web proxy could offer. We’ve seen services with automatic ad and tracker-blocking, rotating IP addresses, and servers specifically designed to beat the world’s strictest online restrictions. Commercial VPNs usually have much larger server networks that let you get an IP address in dozens of different countries.