What is a proxy server and why use one?

what is proxy server and why to use one: illustrative image of man placing a puppet somewhere on the planet

Proxy servers have been around for decades but have grown significantly in use in recent years. A proxy server is a computer appliance that acts as an intermediary between a client and a server communicating with each other. But what is a proxy server in practice?

This article will explain that in simpler terms, along with how proxies work and types of proxy servers, to discuss their effectiveness in protecting your devices online and preventing your activities from being tracked.

Table of Contents

What is a proxy server and how does it work?

A proxy server is a computer or application that acts as a middleman between your web browser and the Internet. Proxies work like a digital hub, receiving all the traffic from your browser and forwarding it to the destination and back.

As the meaning of proxy points out, these intermediary servers are like representatives acting on internet users’ behalf. That is especially useful if you don’t want to connect directly to the target website for privacy and security reasons.

What does a proxy server do?

What a proxy server does is route your traffic and hide your actual IP address. A proxy switches it for another one, usually their own IP.

That means third parties will associate your browsing activity with that IP address instead of yours. For all intents and purposes, that wouldn’t be you surfing the web.

In other words, you can have better chances of anonymity on the Internet. And you’ll get a lot of benefits from that.

Why use a proxy server?

Proxies are used in many ways by professionals from different areas. From web testing and automation to cybersecurity and marketing, proxies have countless applications.

One common business application is to use proxies to keep specific types of traffic from accessing a web service, like your ISP may do to throttle your internet connection. Luckily, you can count on VPNs to easily prevent it from happening.

Proxies have many utilities for individuals alike. On a personal level, you can use a proxy server to hide your identity from web surveillance and trackers, gain some level of privacy, avoid network bias, and access restricted content or services.

A proxy server hides your computer from the Internet, thus, protecting your personal information and browsing sessions from prying eyes.

So, this web appliance will give you a higher level of anonymity online. Proxies can hide your location, internet service provider, and your browser fingerprints. Therefore, it will be much more difficult for any interested party to collect your data and trace your digital steps.

A proxy server also lets you access a website without using your actual IP address. That is an effective way to unblock content such as social media or streaming video that might be made unavailable to you due to commercial, political or technical issues.

Although the use of proxy servers has long been controversial, over the years, more people have started using them to gain access to sites that they would not have access to otherwise.

Whether it’s fighting back geographical restrictions, censorship, or network usage regulation, proxies are helping customers and citizens get better net neutrality and recover their internet freedom.

What types of proxies are there?

There are many different types of proxies. But not all proxies work the same as others. When it comes to anonymity, we can classify them by the level of privacy and security they provide.

So without getting too technical, we will look at the most common types of proxies and their key differences from a personal protection perspective:

Transparent proxies

Transparent proxies are the most basic and simple ones. They usually don’t modify any data, just routing the traffic between the starting and the ending points. For that reason, they forward all information contained in the original request, including your IP address.

Working as reverse proxies, as a gateway to the destination server, it’s used by web services to regulate, restrict, and even block access based on pre-determined criteria.

Anonymous proxies

On the other hand, anonymous proxies do hide your IP address, changing it for its own. The requests from your browser seem to come from that machine or system instead of yours.

But this type of proxy server also identifies itself as a proxy, making it difficult to bypass some network blocks that filter out proxy traffic.

Distorting proxies

Like anonymous proxies, they also hide users’ IPs and clarify for third-party servers they are proxies. The key difference here is that they switch the IP associated with the client for a fake IP address, not their own.

In this case, they have the flexibility to use any IP number, virtually spoofing the physical location in which they operate. That is an advantage when it comes to unlocking geo-restricted services and content.

High-anonymity proxies

Also known as elite or premium proxies, that’s the best option you can get in terms of HTTP proxies (for browser traffic). Elite proxies not only hide your IP but also hide the fact that they are proxies.

They are much harder to block by network control systems and access restriction rules as long as their requests look like standard traffic from a user’s device.

Premium proxies also change their IP address regularly, making it more challenging for trackers to attach web activities to a specific user.

SOCKS proxies

A SOCKS proxy server offers better encryption than other proxy choices that use SSL if so. Therefore, it creates a safe tunnel between the client and the server, not just a gateway as proxies usually do. For that reason, this type of proxy server is the one that gets closer to what a VPN does.

However, modern VPNs rely on better tunneling protocols and more robust encryption and operate on a system level, meaning they route all device traffic, not only application-specific traffic.

Are proxy servers illegal?

Proxy servers are perfectly legal in most countries, although you might find cases where they will be restricted or forbidden. It’s a similar context to VPNs, in which authoritarian governments deem privacy tools obstacles to their surveillance practices.

Some web services, as well, won’t allow access to traffic coming from proxies. But they do not have the power to declare its use an illegal activity. Nor do they have a superior moral o advocate against it, as proxies are largely used to filter traffic and to set up firewalls.

That’s where premium proxies really shine, as they work stealthily, bypassing those restrictions.

Are proxy servers free?

You’ll find plenty of free proxies out there on the Internet. But there’s not to say they are really “free.” You might have heard the phrase, “If you don’t pay for the product, it means the product is you.”

That’s the case for the majority of free proxies. Like most no-charge services, they actually make money by selling your data, not keeping it private.

When that is not the case, you’ll probably be counting on poor performance, though.

How do I get a proxy?

If you want to benefit from higher anonymity and security standards, you’d better pick a good VPN, as it will probably offer many advantages over a proxy server. But if you have made up your mind about using a proxy, you can choose one of three paths:

Set up a proxy server

If the network you use to access the Internet offers a proxy auto-configuration (PAC), you can automatically configure it on your operating system settings. That is not the case for most home and personal networks to talk further about it.

If you’re lucky enough to have one at reach, you can easily find great online tutorials to set it up both manually and on autopilot.

Sign-up for a proxy service

There are many service providers out there with all kinds of proxies and subscription plans. Overall, that is a solution more suited for business and professional use than for personal use. They can be expensive for individuals considering you’ll be renting infrastructure. From a business perspective, it might offer great value for money.

As an individual, you can find free services to use, although I strongly discourage you from going that way, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this article. It’s hard to believe in dedicated proxy services that are good and free simultaneously, as computer power and security technologies are costly.

Some quality paid services you can use if you decide to invest in a proxy subscription are Oxylabs and Smartproxy.

Use a VPN browser extension instead

One alternative to paid proxies and dubious free ones is browser extensions offered by reliable VPN providers. They are limited but might be enough depending on what you need them for.

The key difference in comparison with dedicated free proxies is that VPN companies offer these tools for free as a marketing strategy, not to collect your data. They are a way to get users to sign up and maybe subscribe to a VPN plan in the future.

So, those companies are investing in customer acquisition. A good browser extension can be a neat option even if you don’t intend to upgrade to a VPN. 

Two VPN providers that offer free browser extensions and support the most popular browsers with a similar level of effectiveness are ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access.

At this point, you might be wondering if proxies and VPNs are similar or how they are different from each other. That’s what we’re going to talk about in the next section.

Are proxies the same as VPNs?

That is a common misconception. Although both can be similar in many aspects, they are not the same. Proxies are especially useful for traffic-intensive tasks where dedicated computer power is needed. VPNs are more well-rounded tools concerning data privacy, online security, and internet freedom.

While proxy servers route traffic on an application level, VPNs take care of your total network traffic. That makes VPNs much more suitable for preventing any data leaks, thus, taking your privacy protection to a much higher level.

But there are other differences as well, as you can see in the table below.

Are VPNs better than proxies?

When it comes to personal online security and privacy protection, a VPN does a much better job on your behalf than a proxy server is able to do. Private networks deliver several other benefits for internet users as well.

This comparison table can make it easier for you to understand the keys differences:

Does it:
Hide your IP address
Route all your network traffic
Encrypt your traffic data
Circumvent geo-blocks
Avoid network restrictions
Anonymize Torrenting
Grant stable and fast connections

Keep in mind not all VPNs are built equal, as well as not all providers are trustworthy. If you need better privacy protection, a higher anonymity level, or a safer browsing experience, you should definitely go for a VPN, but a reliable one.

If you want a VPN service recommendation right off the bat, I believe ProtonVPN is close to the best privacy protection you can get in terms of VPN. But if you’re looking for a broader array of uses, or in the case you are not particularly privacy-concerned, both Surfshark and NordVPN can be better-suited choices.

Can I use a proxy and a VPN together?

As I mentioned earlier, both tools can be handy in many cases. But if you’re thinking of using them simultaneously, you can’t. At least, not easily. By rule, a VPN will override any proxy settings on your device.

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