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Decentralized VPNs or dVPNs rely on a network of internet-connected "node" devices rather than a collection of centralized servers like traditional VPNs. This can make dVPNs better for getting around internet censorship, and a dVPN's associated cryptocurrency and blockchain may allow for lower costs and better privacy.

You may have heard by now of decentralized VPNs or dVPNs, services that claim to provide the speed and security of VPNs with the flexibility and anonymity of Tor. But how do decentralized VPNs compare to their centralized counterparts?

This question is a little tricky to answer as each and every dVPN has its own way of doing things. It doesn’t help that, like with anything even remotely connected to cryptocurrency, there are forks of forks and different implementations everywhere as people go off and do their own thing. Still, though, there are a few general observations you can make when comparing regular VPNs to dVPNs.

Decentralized vs. Centralized

The main difference between the two types of VPN is structure. A regular VPN like ExpressVPN or NordVPN will own or rent a collection of servers all around the world that customers can run their traffic through. Usually housed in large server farms, they’re typically maintained by a third party, but they belong to the VPN.

dVPNs don’t do this. Instead of running traffic through centralized VPN servers, they run a network of what are called nodes. Think of nodes of places where you can enter or exit the internet, or relay connections through. These nodes can be any kind of device, like a laptop, a desktop, a smartphone or even a server. Basically anything that can send and receive an internet connection can potentially be a node.

If you’ve spent enough time on the internet, the word “node” probably fired a Pavlovian reaction where you thought “Tor.” There is a lot of overlap between dVPNs and Tor, though some key differences, as well, which we’ll get into as we go along.

Service vs. Network

dVPN nodes are run by the users of the dVPN, so us. When you sign on to a decentralized VPN, you’re not contracting them to perform a service, you’re not a customer. Instead, you’re joining a network of individuals who both make use of nodes as well as contribute their own, not unlike with Tor.

Just like with Tor, though, you don’t have to be a node; you can opt just to use other people’s nodes and be done with it. However, unlike Tor, which relies on volunteers and thus doesn’t offer too many nodes, dVPNs incentivize users to act as nodes, effectively paying them to make use of their devices.

dVPNs Require Cryptocurrency

That payment system is where the crypto part of dVPNs come in, and is the second big thing that sets the newcomer apart from traditional VPNs. When you sign up with ExpressVPN, you pay $100 to use it for a year. When you join a dVPN network like Orchid, you don’t pay for the service. Instead, you buy some of the network’s associated crypto—OXT in this case—and you use it to pay the owner of the node you’re using.

Naturally, the network operator takes a cut of this (the exact amount is a mystery). But this payment system is a big difference between dVPNs and both Tor and VPNs. The amounts we’re talking about aren’t particularly big, maybe a few pennies per hour, but they do mean that when you function as a node, you could potentially make enough money to use other people’s nodes without additional cost.

This is great for anybody—we all like free stuff—but is especially good news for people in the developing world who may not have the means of paying for a VPN, like a credit card or account balance. A good example would be Myanmar, where protestors were able to bypass the government’s heavy-handed internet censorship by using Mysterium VPN; Bloomberg has the story.

Of course, because of the use of custom coins, dVPNs are more than just a dVPN network; they’re also a mining opportunity. Many dVPNs will allow you to use your node to mine for their cryptocurrency when it’s not being used. The Deeper Network goes all-in on this idea, offering special hardware devices you can use as nodes that will mine when idle.

Though the idea of banking on a crypto coin appreciating in value isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially not after crypto’s performance in 2022, it is an extra incentive used by dVPN networks to draw more users.

dVPNs Operate on Blockchains

Of course, where there’s cryptocurrency, there’s the blockchain, which is something else that sets VPNs and dVPNs apart. The big issue with any kind of VPN is logging: keeping records of when you connected to the server and which sites you visited. Most VPNs claim to be no-log VPNs, services that don’t keep or destroy logs.

Thing is, though, that these claims are hard to verify. It’s hard to prove the absence of something, after all. dVPNs figure they have solved this conundrum, though, by storing all this information on their blockchains. All the information about the network’s traffic is stored there, for all to see, but also anonymized.

In this way, dVPNs are more transparent than regular VPNs, because you at least know what’s happening with any records and logs. If logs are something you’re especially worried about, dVPNs are an interesting alternative.

Which Is Better: dVPNs or VPNs?

These are the main differences between decentralized VPNs and regular VPNs, which probably gives rise to the question which is the better pick for you. The answer is that it very much depends on you, the user. As it stands now, dVPNs are very much the niche choice as it’s a developing technology. For example, we’re not completely sure if dVPNs are as safe as VPNs.

At time of writing, dVPNs are a great choice for crypto aficionados who want to dive deep into a possible iteration of Web 3.0, the decentralized web free from corporate interference. It’s also a great option for anybody that wants to use a VPN at minimal cost without signing up for it; just buy, or earn, some crypto and you’re ready to go.

For the average internet user, though, it’s hard to say what benefits dVPNs hold over their counterparts. The biggest one is that dVPNs are great at getting through to Netflix since nodes are harder to detect than VPN servers. Still, though, dVPNs hold a lot of promise, and you may want to keep an eye on them as they develop. Here’s how to try a decentralized VPN.

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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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