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Decentralized VPNs might be the latest way in which we can stay safe on the web—and are even touted as a way in which we can change the way the internet works. But what are these services exactly, and how do they work?

Regular VPN vs. Decentralized VPN

We’ll explain what a decentralized VPN is by comparing it to a regular VPN. Normally, when you connect to a website, you’re making a connection between your computer, your internet service provider’s server, and the server that the website is hosted on (How-To Geek’s in this case). That’s just how the internet works.

A VPN reroutes your connection between your ISP and the website through what’s called a secure tunnel. This allegedly secures your connection and, more importantly, changes your IP address to that of the server. Since most VPN services have locations all over the world, you can appear to be just about anywhere. That’s how VPNs work.

However, there are some weaknesses in the way that VPNs work, the biggest one being the VPN itself. While the VPN hides your online behavior from your ISP and the sites that you visit, the VPN operator itself has the technical availability to see everything that you do. Most top-rated VPN services have no-log policies in place that promise to prevent that, but in the end, you’re taking them at their word. With all of the untrustworthy VPNs out there, that might not always be a good idea.

What Is a Decentralized VPN?

A decentralized VPN—also known as a dVPN, a P2P VPN, or, more rarely, a DPN—gets around this issue by connecting you not to one proprietary server, but rather, to what’s called a “node.” A node could be a server, but could also be somebody’s phone or laptop, or even a desktop computer idling in an office somewhere.

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The dVPN gets access to these devices by giving their owners credit for the privilege. They can then use this credit to use the network themselves, making the whole thing self-sustaining. To break it down to an elementary level, Peter lets Paula reroute through his smartphone. In return, she can route through his laptop.

Of course, at first glance, that sounds a bit questionable, as you’re letting complete strangers access your devices. The good news is that they aren’t accessing your devices. At no point does anybody get actual use of your machine. Traffic is just routed through your address, so to speak. It’s comparable to using BitTorrent to download files.

That being said, most dVPN providers seem to allow two types of plans: those that let you earn credit by letting others route through your devices, and those that let you pay for access like with a normal VPN.

Because this network is decentralized—another word that’s often used is “serverless”—there isn’t one authority that can collect information on what you’re doing. On top of that, dVPNs are dApps—or “dapps”—that run on the Ethereum blockchain, which makes it so that anybody can see how they work while your data is kept safe.

In the words of Dimitar Dobrev, founder of both VPNArea and up-and-coming dVPN service Neutrality Way, you should think of Ethereum “as the database that VPN providers have in order to authenticate users, maintain server lists, credentials, etc.” In theory, this transparency could make it easier to figure out who is using which node. In the case of Neutrality Way, Mr. Dobrev proposes that an automated bot be used that would anonymously shift traffic around. It sounds intriguing, and we’re curious to see what will come of it.

Decentralized VPNs vs. Tor

If you know a little bit about this kind of thing, all this talk of nodes probably made you think something along the lines of “But that’s just Tor with extra steps.” You’re not wrong, either. One Hacker Noon article even calls decentralized VPNs the “evolution of Tor.” There are a few key differences, however.

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The most important is that while Tor runs on volunteerism—people put up nodes for free, for anybody to use—dVPNs are incentivized. If you put up a node, then you can expect to be paid for your trouble, even if it’s just in network credits that you can then use yourself. On the other hand, you can also opt to just pay into the system without putting up a node of your own. That’s fine, too. This incentivization could be the key to keeping dVPNs viable while Tor languishes among a group of aficionados.

Another difference is that dVPNs most likely won’t hop between nodes. According to Mr. Dobrev, jumping between nodes makes it too easy to harvest IP addresses and thus blacklist them, which is bad for both people trying to break through to other countries’ Netflix libraries as well as people looking to dodge China-style censorship.

Another advantage that dVPNs have over Tor are that dVPNs have better speed thanks to improved protocols. Generally speaking, they also should be able to access restricted content (like Netflix) because you’re using residential IP addresses, not the ones that streaming services know belong to VPNs.

Can You Use a Decentralized VPN?

If all of the above sounds interesting, there’s a catch: Very few of the services that we could find are fully operational. Only Orchid seems to have a fully fleshed-out system set up, with others being in different stages of readiness.

Still, though, we recommend that you check out the providers below: Most of them have websites with extensive information—seriously, we wish that everybody was this forward with information about their product—as well as links to long-form whitepapers, which is where we got a lot of the information for this article.

Although we won’t go so far as to recommend them, here are five dVPNs that appear to be pretty good:

  • Orchid, which seems to be the only truly operational service right now. It runs on its own cryptocurrency named OXT.
  • Neutrality Way, a dVPN from the same people behind VPNArea, which has some very innovative solutions to the problems that dVPNs face.
  • Sentinel, which is unique for using so-called validators to govern its network.
  • Deeper, which aims to create Web3.0 with greater transparency for all.
  • Mysterium Network, which has one of the more informative websites for people unfamiliar with the tech.
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Whether or not dVPNs are the way of the future remains to be seen, but these handy applications have a lot going for them already. Time will only tell if they’ll be the gateway to a new kind of internet.

The Best VPN Services of 2021 for Netflix, Privacy, and More

Best Overall VPN
ExpressVPN
Best Budget VPN
SurfShark
Best Free VPN
Windscribe
Best VPN for iPhone
ProtonVPN
Best VPN for Android
Hide.me
Best VPN for Streaming
ExpressVPN
Best VPN for Gaming
Private Internet Access
Best VPN for Torrenting
NordVPN
Best VPN for Windows
CyberGhost
Best VPN for China
VyprVPN
Best VPN for Privacy
Mullvad VPN
Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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