A digital lock and Wi-Fi logo.

If you want to escape internet censorship, you may have wondered whether a VPN or Shadowsocks is the better choice for you. Both are powerful tools that will help you evade any blocks, but each comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Let’s compare the two.

How Does Internet Censorship (Usually) Work?

Before we get to how VPNs and Shadowsocks work, let’s take a look at the bogeyman they’re trying to defeat. Plenty of places use some kind of internet censorship to control what their population sees online—China’s Great Firewall is one of the strictest examples, though far from the only one.

The way most of these blocks work is relatively simple: they block IP addresses — each website’s unique identifier — either specific ones or even an entire range of them. It’s simple but effective.

However, if you have an idea of how the internet works, the solution is equally simple. Instead of going directly to the blocked IP address you want to visit, you first go to an unblocked one, assume that IP address and then go to where you originally intended to go.

Evasion by Proxy

There are several ways to reroute your internet connection in this way, the most common of which are proxies. These are small programs that let you bounce your signal around, so if you’re in the United States for example, you can use a proxy to make it appear like you’re in Canada, the UK, or, well, anywhere, really.

However, censors around the world have gotten wise to how proxies work. They generally aren’t very good for anything aside from anything more serious than YouTube’s copyright blocks. On top of that, proxies offer no privacy, so if anybody is tracking people avoiding blocks—like China is rumored to do—you may find yourself in hot water.

Thankfully, there are several more effective alternatives to proxies, including Tor and SSH tunnels. However, among the most popular are Shadowsocks and virtual private networks; let’s take a look at them now.

What Is Shadowsocks?

Of the two, Shadowsocks is closest to a proxy, so we’ll start there. In fact, technically it is a proxy, it just uses an improved protocol—a set of rules that lets two or more machines “talk” to each other—over most proxies. Called SOCKS5, it does a few things better than regular proxies do, like encrypt the connection.

As we explain in our article on what Shadowsocks is, the application was developed initially by a Chinese programmer named “clowwindy” to bypass the Great Firewall. However, he had to abandon the project after being “invited to tea” by the Chinese police—which seems to be a solid endorsement of how well Shadowsocks work. Since then, the project has been taken over by others, and they have further refined it.

The result is a simple proxy that is easy to set up by anybody with a little know-how—it’s not quite ready to go when you download it—and one that’s indistinguishable from regular internet traffic. We like how stealthy it is, and so far we’ve never heard of anybody getting into trouble for using it.

What Is a VPN?

Virtual private networks are a slightly different take on the same foundation. Much like a proxy, a VPN will reroute your connection but encrypts traffic using a so-called VPN tunnel, making it impossible for anybody to figure out what’s going—on unless they have a few billion years to spare to crack the encryption.

VPNs rose to prominence as a great way for torrenters to download copyrighted material. Though the connections to torrenting sites are closely monitored, using a VPN means that copyright watchdogs can’t figure out your location, nor can they see what you’re doing because of the encryption.

Of course, VPNs are useful for a lot more things than just torrenting: you can use them to get around censorship, regional restrictions like those put up by Netflix, and a few other limitations. There are many things you should use a VPN for.

VPN vs. Shadowsocks

You could be forgiven for thinking that Shadowsocks and VPN seem awfully similar at first glance, and the technology is comparable in many ways. However, there are some important differences between the two, especially when it comes to detection. As a general rule, VPN connections are easier to detect but harder to crack, while Shadowsocks is harder to detect but easier to decipher.

In practice, though, the difference seems to be negligible: in China, at least, not too many people get in trouble for tunneling under the Great Firewall—though the fear of getting caught is omnipresent. However, in Myanmar and Russia, for example, you can get into trouble for evading censorship. Police may even stop people on the street to inspect phones for VPN software.

Overall, the choice between the two seems to hinge on what you’ll use it for. If you need to avoid blocks first and foremost and you have the technical know-how to set up Shadowsocks, it’s a great option. It’s free to use and nobody should be able to figure out what you’re doing, either by analyzing your traffic or looking at your phone.

However, if you have the money to spend, VPN services are interesting because they can not only bypass censorship but also do so much more. That said, the chance that your traffic can be identified—in other words, that internet monitors could notice you’re using a VPN—is a little concerning. If that’s a worry you may want to check out services like VyprVPN, which claim to have developed VPN protocols that aren’t identifiable.

The upshot is that both VPNs and Shadowsocks should do a good job of avoiding censorship blocks, though both come with a risk of detection. Shadowsocks’ risk of detection is just smaller. The fact that, once detected, you can be identified is a little scary, though. If that is a major concern for you, maybe trying a VPN with custom protocols, like the aforementioned VyprVPN, is a good idea.

If, however, evading blocks is just a minor consideration for you, then VPNs are the much better option as they’ll also let you torrent in peace as well as get around Netflix’s restrictions. We also like that even if detected, it’ll be a lot harder to figure out who you are.

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Profile Photo for 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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