You have likely heard other people discussing the use of a proxy to bypass web filters at work, or to browse the internet anonymously, but wondered if a proxy would actually be that useful to you or not. Today’s post looks at the benefits a proxy could bring to your browsing experience.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader Breebreebran wants to know what the benefits of using a proxy are:

I know students and employees use them to get by web filters. But what else? I hear about “privacy and security”, but I can never find anything really explaining it.

I did see one link that said it stops pages from putting cookies on your computer. But why is that such a big deal when you can just use CCleaner to get rid of them?

What are the benefits of using one?

Can a normal everyday person benefit from using a proxy? Are there enough benefits for those who choose to use a proxy to make it worthwhile?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor gronostaj has the answer for us:

Bypassing filters isn’t the reason why proxies were invented. A basic advantage of using them is that they make you more anonymous. This is how you’re connecting to websites when browsing without a proxy:

You’re connecting directly to the server.

  • It knows your external IP – that’s a piece of information about you, probably not enough to identify you with certainty, but enough to find out your approximate geographical location.
  • It knows the cookies you have on your computer – you may delete them later, but you definitely don’t delete them each time you load a website.
  • It knows what browser you’re using and what plugins you have installed. Every time you visit a website, your browser sends the User Agent string which can be used to identify a browser, its version, OS version, and sometimes installed browser extensions.
  • It knows where you’re coming from. An HTTP referrer (sic!) is sent each time you click a link. Basically, when you navigate from one site to another, the target site will know the URL or previous site.

You can try to block cookies, UAs, and referrers in your browser, but there are more programs that use HTTP. Most of them won’t let you tamper with such settings. That’s where we can use a proxy:

Now all your network traffic is passing through the proxy and it can alter it:

  • It can replace the User Agent string with some meaningless string or strip out the referrers.
  • It can accept all cookies, but not pass them to you, or it can block them altogether.
  • It’s the proxy that’s connecting to the server, not you, so your IP isn’t disclosed.
  • A proxy can be set up to work system-wide, so programs won’t be able to bypass it.

There are also some extra features that a proxy can provide:

  • It can compress your traffic to save some bandwidth.
  • It can cache files to give a little boost to page load times.
  • It can strip ads from websites before they reach your computer.
  • It can block malicious websites.

And finally, it can be used not only against filters, but also as a filter!

As seen in the explanation above, using a proxy can definitely benefit a user in many ways while browsing the internet.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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