When is a VPN not a VPN?

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In a word – when it’s just a ‘proxy’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thus: “the agency, function, or office of a deputy who acts as a substitute for another” so, strictly, the word isn’t particularly accurate in computing terms.

However, in the framework of technology, a proxy is simply one server that stands in for another, taking its place under a ‘cloak’ to hide its identity. 

There is the crucial difference between a free VPN and a proxy VPN service, the latter of which isn’t really a proper VPN.

A fully functioning VPN (Virtual Private Network) both hides the IP address from where you’re logging on to the internet whilst also encrypting your connection to the world wide web. This can prevent your devices being hacked with malware, ransomware and all other sorts of internet nasties.

However a proxy is nothing other than a ‘middleman’ server sitting between your chosen device and your Internet Service Provider’s server, known as your ISP. Crucially, the proxy anonymizes your internet presence and activity, but it does not encrypt the connection. This means that a proxy is really a ‘halfway house’ VPN.

What is a residential proxy?

To define things a little further, there are also different types of proxies; data centre proxy servers and residential servers. Residential servers are often favoured by proxy VPNs, because they can make the internet user appear to be surfing the web from a suburb of a city anywhere from Dublin to Denver, whereas a data centre server is readily identifiable as a commercial one (i.e. an ISP). There are many advantages to using residential proxies, not least that there are, obviously, a lot more residential houses in the world than there are data centres. In simple terms, there are more IP addresses to choose from.

Residential proxies are also very useful for internet marketers and data miners because residential servers tend to permit the use of ‘web scraping’ agents. Web scraping is a way of finding data from websites, by sending HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) requests to that website’s server. The scraper then parses the Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) to mine and analyse the resulting data. This data can then be used for a variety of purposes, such as price comparisons of similar products dictated by geographical location. This enables tech giants, currently laying off thousands of employees,  to use what’s known as ‘dynamic pricing’ to increase their profits.

VPNs can avoid dynamic pricing

It’s surprising that the concept of dynamic pricing is even legal, as it is quite an underhand practice, carried out most often by websites that sell hotel accommodation and flight bookings. It’s a model of pure free-market capitalism because it adjusts the price of a product or service based upon the assumption of what you can afford. It works by the server of the website in question detecting your IP address and finding your location.

IP addresses can be uncannily accurate. They’re not generally detectable to street level, but they can give away your location within a town or city, or even a suburb of it. So if you’re logging on to the internet via your regular ISP server, without a VPN, to an airline’s website, in order to book a ticket from Belfast to Belgium, your location says a lot about your likely financial status.

If your IP address places you as in the middle of Dublin, the website will base its prices on the fact that you’re either a business customer working from a city centre office, or you are rich enough to live in Dublin 4.

In any case, the price you’ll see might well be higher than if your IP address puts you as living in somewhere like St Mary’s Park – central Limerick.

By using a VPN, you can be in Dublin 4, but choose to access the internet from a server near Limerick and hey presto, cheaper flights and hotel rooms!

Avoid data throttling

Using an encrypted VPN also means that your ISP can’t know who or where you are when you access the internet. Sometimes ISPs throttle, meaning to slow down the data transfer speed of individual heavy users like all day online gamers or heavy movie-streamers.

They also throttle entire areas if a particular local event is happening that is liable to have everyone in that area streaming at once. By using a VPN you can’t be throttled if your ISP can’t find your location.

To summarise, it’s best to choose a VPN provider that encrypts your connection as well as cloaking your location, as you’ll be getting full protection from all the internet baddies and also being able to effectively ‘dictate’ your apparent location. Whether you’re gaming, streaming or booking a flight, a free VPN is the way to go.