VPNs are big business and are getting bigger, but the prospect of buying and subscribing for a subscription can be daunting for a beginner. However, this is not your only option. Increasingly, web browsers offer their own in-browser VPNs (or services referred to as such). But are they really the same and how much protection do they offer?
As a pioneer in online security, Opera is establishing itself as a niche that's ready to experiment, take risks, and introduce new privacy features long before the bigger players come along. It was the first mainstream browser to launch an integrated VPN that offered it for both desktop and mobile devices.
"Opera introduced our free, integrated VPN without a protocol browser over three years ago," said an Opera spokesperson for TechRadar. "We've seen the growing demand for VPN services: People wanted to better protect their online lives. We decided to help them with this. "
"We're a non-standard browser that requires users to make selections to download and use, so we strive to innovate and deliver the best features as soon as we can."
Opera does not charge for its VPN, but instead provides it as an incentive for users to switch from competing browsers. "The revenue of our browser comes from other sources that have nothing to do with each other, for example, from agreements with the most popular search engines in the world," said the spokesman.
"The reception was great. People appreciate the fact that our VPN is not a protocol, free and unlimited. Unlike Firefox, for example, the number of Opera browsers continues to grow and is now the preferred choice of more than 300 million people worldwide on PCs and smartphones. "
Opera is very confident and the service is definitely easy to use (our colleagues from Tom's Guide have found that it works especially well with Netflix). But is it really a VPN? Some would argue no.
When is a VPN not a VPN?
In September 2019, Mozilla debuted an experimental tool called Firefox Private Network (FPN). It is currently available for free trial for users of US desktops, but may become a paid product when published in the near future. Although it works just like the Opera tool, Mozilla has stopped calling it a VPN, and we asked why it made the distinction.
"Firefox Private Network is designed to provide the best possible performance and privacy," said a Mozilla spokesman for TechRadar. "Unlike a real VPN, a software that works at the operating system level of a device, the Firefox Private Network is a secure, encrypted path to the Web for the Firefox browser that uses Cloudflare as a proxy."
Since FPN only protects the web traffic transmitted through the browser, Mozilla believes that "proxy" is a more appropriate term. By doing so, Opera's offer is also a secure proxy that anonymizes only browser traffic.
Proxies are useful tools for keeping your daily surfing private, especially if you use a public Wi-Fi hotspot. However, it is important to be aware of the limitations compared to a "real" VPN.
A proxy does not protect data sent and received by other applications, including (but not limited to) email clients, media apps, and messaging apps. This is important given that online services are increasingly prompting users to use their own apps instead of a web browser.
It is also important to know who provides the proxy of your browser, where the organization is located (different data protection laws apply in different countries) and which protocols are stored.
However, if you want to make sure that all Internet traffic is encrypted and anonymous, you must examine a premium standalone VPN service.
Proxies vs VPNs
ExpressVPN is one of the world's largest VPN providers and is currently ranked first in our Best VPN Guide. "We are pleased to see a growing number of companies sharing our view that VPNs are an essential online privacy and security tool," said Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN.
"Since 2018, we've also been working with Mozilla to offer Firefox Lite users a free 7-day trial of ExpressVPN. This allows users to be aware of the risks of public WLAN while providing them with tools to protect themselves. "
While agreeing that browser-based proxies may be useful, he also noted that they do not protect all Internet traffic.
He also noted that dedicated VPN services can also invest more in their products, offering services such as 24/7 live customer support, premium bandwidth, reliable content unlocking and state-of-the-art hardware for speed, stability and security. For example, the ExpressVPN servers run in RAM only and not on hard drives. This ensures that all software and data on the server are deleted at each reboot.
Most browser developers can not do that – and certainly not for free. However, there is a company with the resources …
What about Chrome?
There are certainly many third-party proxy extensions for Chrome (free and paid), but there's no sign that Google is implementing its own proxy or VPN. With more than 60% of the global browser market in September 2019, StatCounter says, Google certainly does not have to dangle a carrot to seduce new users – but it could, if it so desires.
It already provides a VPN to customers of its Google Fi mobile phone service, though this is not required. Google does not control its own mobile network and therefore uses the infrastructure of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.
Each of these companies has its own security and privacy policies. Therefore, it is a nightmare for Google to create a standard set of privacy policies. Therefore, it has decided to work around the problem by installing a VPN on each phone. Data is sent encrypted to a remote server before being sent to one of these three ISPs. This means they can not see what it is or where it came from.
This is not a cheap service, but shows that Google is ready to expand its services with privacy tools when needed. And if proxies become standard on all other browsers, they may be forced to follow suit.
Earlier this year, Google followed in the footsteps of Mozilla and Opera, giving Chrome users the ability to block third-party cookies (although this only causes advertisers to use shadier methods such as fingerprints to track web users).
A true in-browser VPN would be a big plus for Google, especially as Chrome's popularity wears off as users get frustrated by the infamous RAM puzzle. This would cause Google to overtake other browsers that offer only a proxy. Whether users would trust a Google-provided VPN is another question, but we certainly would not rule out that Chrome will appear in the next few years.