What is a proxy

Karol Wojcik
Karol Wojcik | Senior Writer
Last updated: April 8, 2021
What is a proxy
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If you aren’t new to the online security business, you’ve likely heard about proxies. What is a proxy, exactly? Well, put simply, a proxy is a web filter tool that makes your connection appear to be coming from a different location. This is achieved by masking your IP address and assigning you one that belongs to the proxy server.

By design, proxies don’t cover your entire internet connection and are created to work with specific programs, such as browsers, mail servers, or torrent clients. They can be installed and configured locally on your computer or publicly, e.g. on wifi access points.

Proxy servers are created when an online host decides to allow internet users to send traffic through their server. Proxies differ not only in the apps they work with but also their server capabilities. Some can handle millions of inquiries while others get overcrowded easily.

These proxy servers rarely offer encryption or other kinds of privacy protection. Any encrypted connection that comes with a proxy does not actually come from the proxy itself. Sending and receiving information through a proxy is going to be encrypted only if the site is connected to an SSL certificate. Any traffic that is not encrypted, therefore, can be seen by the administrator of the remote computer being connected to.

In our full proxy guide, we’ll look at the different types of proxies, the most common questions around proxies, and lastly the differences between proxies and VPNs.

Types of proxies

There are three ways we can categorize proxies. Each is slightly different and can be described by its relation with your web browser, its security level, and its exclusivity, which impacts the speed and anonymity of your connection.

1. Proxy types by protocol

The oldest and simplest type of proxy to set up is the HTTP proxy. HTTP proxies route the browser traffic through the remote proxy server and usually come in the form of a browser extension. Alternatively, they can be set up on a specific website where you enter the domain name and connect to it from inside the proxy tab.

The problem with HTTP proxies is that browsers can establish a connection with other protocols, too. For example, clicking on an FTP link will open it for you in the same browser, but without the proxy shield. Also, the proxy owner can monitor your HTTP traffic.

The HTTPS proxy is similar to the HTTP proxy, but it encrypts the traffic between you and the server. While this makes it slower than the HTTP option, the proxy owner can no longer monitor your traffic.

SOCKS works the same way as the regular HTTP proxy but routes your traffic independently from the browser. This means that you can choose the apps and services that should go through the SOCKS proxy, such as Netflix, BitTorrent, YouTube, Twitch, and others. SOCKS extends the number of services you can access but is generally slower than HTTP. Also, the proxy owner will be able to monitor all your traffic save for the HTTPS.

2. Proxy types by security

Generally, all proxies, both free and paid, are placed in three levels, depending on the type of protection they offer.

Level 3 – transparent proxies. Contrary to the name, the only transparent thing here is your IP, which is displayed publicly to anyone who has any interest in checking it out.

Level 2 – anonymous proxies. Calling them anonymous might be a bit of an overstatement, as everyone will see that you’re coming from a proxy, but at least your real IP address hidden.

Level 1 – elite proxies. These proxies don’t bother to inform anyone that you’re coming from a proxy, but the IP of the server is still visible for your destination. And since everyone wants to be part of the elite, these proxies tend to get overcrowded, causing the speeds to drop like a peasant drops on his knees before a lord.

No matter which security level you end up using, virtually all proxies log your activity, which can be used to track you.

3. Proxy types by exclusivity

The third way of categorizing proxy types is by their exclusivity. It has a direct impact on the speed and anonymity and usually determines the price you will be paying for the service.

Dedicated proxy – in this case you get a dedicated IP address. It positively affects your connection speed but negatively impacts your anonymity because the IP points directly to your device.

Semi-shared proxy – this is when 2-5 people share the same proxy and sacrifice a bit of speed for a bit more anonymity.

General proxy – this proxy is shared publicly, meaning that your anonymity depends on the number of users online, but so does your connection speed.

Should you use a free or paid proxy?

Well, it depends on the level of privacy and speed that you require. If your goal is just accessing geo-blocked content, a free proxy might do the trick. But if you want to be sure that at least your IP address is not visible to third parties while you’re using the service, you’d better go with the paid option.

Free proxies are known for their unstable connections, which means that you might lose access to your streaming library in the middle of a show. The lack of support usually means that your only choice is to take a deep breath and wait for the service to go back online again.

And while proxies are generally faster than that of your average VPN, free services rarely fall into this category due to overcrowded servers. That’s not a big deal if you’re reading some news or checking social networks, but gaming or streaming in HD will probably be impossible with a free proxy. On the contrary, a paid proxy limits the number of users per gateway, but you might still lack speed when using SOCKS to play online or stream HD.

Even if you don’t care about your privacy, you should know that about 70% of free proxies contain malware that might go into your system unnoticed. It’s hard to detect it between various ads and pop-up banners that are shown in most free proxies. Later, your personal information is collected and sold, or worse – used to access your sensitive accounts, such as your email, that store your credit card info.

Are proxies good for streaming?

You’ll likely lack the required speeds to stream in HD if you’re using a free proxy. However, even a paid proxy might not do the trick if the server you’re trying to connect to is in another continent. What’s more, speed is not the only issue you might encounter when trying to stream a Netflix show with a proxy service.

For one thing, not all proxies can unblock this popular streaming platform, not to mention the notoriously tough nut in BBC iPlayer. Even some of the best VPNs are struggling with Netflix’s IP blacklisting. But some factors separate streaming-worthy proxies from the other ones.

The most important thing is the static IP you get from a dedicated proxy. With it, an HTTP proxy should be enough, but it only works with browsers. Setting up a proxy on a smart TV or similar device would mean using a Netflix app, and this also means that only a SOCKS proxy would do the trick. Unfortunately, the app might change your DNS settings and if they don’t match your IP – the content stays blocked.

In conclusion, proxies can be used for streaming, but there’s no guarantee they will unblock every Netflix library or any other streaming platform. In fact, only a few of the best ones can do it.

Can you use a proxy for torrenting and P2P?

While torrenting in itself is legal, most of the time the content shared using P2P is copyrighted, causing issues for ISPs, copyright holders, and the (in)voluntary copyright infringers. That’s why hiding your IP address might be beneficial. And, sometimes, it’s plainly necessary if torrenting is blocked by your ISP or in your location. Here’s where a proxy service can help you out.

For torrenting and P2P, you will need a SOCKS proxy. While in theory an HTTP proxy can still work, expect significant slowdowns if not because of throttling from your ISP, then because of the simple fact that HTTP was designed for nothing else but browsing.

Again, the speed of your downloads will depend on the quality of the proxy. A free version with overcrowded servers will do you no good while a paid one will be faster and more secure.

Can a proxy help against the Great Firewall of China?

China is one of the few countries that censors internet freedom heavily. Therefore, many locals and tourists use proxies and VPNs to access blocked websites, such as Google, YouTube, or Facebook. But a third option might be the best – a proxy called Shadowsocks.

Chinese coders have created Shadowsocks to be explicitly used in this country. It uses SOCKS5 protocol and is less centralized than any VPN, increasing your chances to unblock the desired content. The downside is that Shadowsocks is an open-source project, which is harder to maintain without proper funding. On top of that, it’s not something that can be easily set up without some prior knowledge.

Differences between a proxy and VPN

Proxies and VPNs perform similar functions as they both aim to route a user’s internet traffic through a remote computer or server to mask the originating IP address. However, there are major differences between these two online privacy tools. Let’s look at these differences and consider the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

SecurityOffer limited security features, covers only browser trafficProvides encryption, routes all your internet traffic
SpeedGenerally fast (paid proxies)Decent speeds
ProtocolsHTTP, SMTP, FTP, and TELNETOpenVPN, L2TP, IPsec, etc
SetupHas to be set up separately on each appRequires only initial setup

As you can see from the table above, the major difference between a VPN and a proxy comes in the area of security. Proxies offer limited security and privacy options. They usually log your activity and are often not encrypted.

On the other hand, VPN services provide solid security, encrypting all traffic that goes through their servers. Most VPNs also have no-logging policies.

Proxies and VPNs also differ in the protocols they employ and in the setup process. Setup with a VPN service usually involves simply installing the VPN client. Proxies can be accessed via their websites and have to be configured separately on each app used and for the specific server you wish to connect to.

VPN or proxy: which one should you use?

Having seen the differences between these two privacy tools, you might wonder when using a proxy instead of a VPN is better and vice versa. Here are the possible scenarios where one has an advantage over the other.

Proxies are often used to access geo-blocked content. They hide your real IP address and allow multiple users to use each different proxy on the same computer when installing multiple VPNs might cause issues. They also help those outside of their region to see local content and “enjoy” ads that are tailored according to the IP address.

Finally, proxies are lightweight and pretty fast due to the lack of sophisticated security features. To some extent, your encryption and safety level can be increased with the help of third-party tools, such as the browser plug-in “HTTPS Everywhere.”

VPNs, on the other hand, are security-first tools that not only hide your IP address but prevent leaking and exposing personal data. They encrypt the whole internet connection, putting the traffic in a secure tunnel which is extremely hard to access from outside. Usually, this comes at the cost of connection speed, which sometimes can be more important than remaining anonymous. Also, VPNs have servers in many more countries to connect to, allowing users to access some resources that are available in a particular region only.

Both proxies and VPN services can be quite useful, but knowing the difference between a VPN and a proxy even more so. Proxies often offer greater speed with less security, while VPNs offer more options and a high level of security features while sacrificing some speed.

In general, VPNs are better than proxies, but depending on your needs there still may be a place for a proxy server in your toolkit.

Recommended proxy services

If you decide that a proxy service will suit your needs, it’s wise to use a good one. However, a VPN service will provide more robust security and privacy options if you need them.

While all VPNs aren’t created equal, you can get excellent security and anonymity if you choose some of the best VPNs available today.

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  1. nujeen

    Thank you for clearing my doubts as I landed here to look for the best option for me as I am travelling to China next week. I think I will invest in a VPN

  2. indianajonesfan

    Yeah, I’m not sure I trust proxies myself! A VPN covers your whole connection, and that seems so much safer. I used to use proxies…they used to be the only option, back before VPNs became widespread. Fortunately we’ve got VPN’s now and don’t have to rely on proxies.

    That being said, if you don’t have a lot of money, a proxy can be a nice quick fix if you need a brief security solution. I wouldn’t trust it for long though.

  3. themartian

    I wonder if you can use both a proxy and a paid VPN and if that would help or actually be a bad thing? If one would not negate the other somehow I would use both to increase speed and get more protection.

    1. avatar
      Karol Wojcik Author

      Hi, themartian. That’s a good question. Using both would definitely not improve your speed. On the contrary, multiple encryptions would slow things down even more. As for protection, there are some advantages. For example, if you’re not using a kill switch and the VPN disconnects for some reason, part of your traffic would still be covered by the proxy. If the proxy goes down, that traffic part will stop working. But if you really want to sacrifice speed for the sake of privacy, use an anonymous VPN over Tor (not the other way around).

  4. Menem

    I guess that using a proxy is better than nothing when it comes to online security, but a VPN is still the only way to make sure you are safe online.

    1. Tyrion Lannsiter

      Mmm I disagree, they really don’t offer much safety and only allow you to access geo-blocked content. I still recommend 100% that people should get a VPN to be safe and free online.

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