The strict rules in China when it comes to censoring the Internet have become a real headache lately. Even VPNs have a hard time bypassing some of the restrictions. The speed is very slow, and the connections regularly drop. That’s of course if you can access a provider at all. So, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Virtual Private Networks are still widely used, not just in China, but around the world. However, a new solution emerged in 2012 for the first time, called Shadowsocks. It’s one of the best ways of accessing restricted content. Although somewhat similar, it’s important to note that a VPN and Shadowsocks servers are not the same thing. As a matter of fact, Shadowsocks can be explained as a more advanced Proxy server instead.

What is Shadowsocks?

The Chinese government has been targeting VPN providers for years now, so programmers have found another similar way of accessing blocked content on the Internet. Shadowsocks is based on a technique called “proxying”, something that grew in popularity ever since the early days of the Chinese Great Firewall.

Proxying works by connecting you first to another computer called a “proxy server”, before connecting to the wider Internet. This way, all of your Internet traffic is routed through this server, which can be located pretty much everywhere. This way the server allows you to access Geo-blocked content from around the world. However, a basic Proxy won’t do anymore.  And although they work just fine in most countries around the world, Chinese netizens now are facing a different problem. The Great Firewall has expanded and is much more effective than before, leaving the Internet users with little to no options.

However, this is where Shadowsocks comes to the rescue. It works in a slightly different way, by utilizing HTTPS, thus disguising traffic. This way you can move past the censorship measures. It uses SOCKS5, an open-source Internet protocol, which doesn’t send all your traffic through a server. Instead, it works with multiple TCP connections, unlike ssh socks 5 proxies. This allows browsing with much bigger speeds.

If you want a Shadowsocks account, the full set up requires a Linode server needed to host the Shadowsocks daemon, and a client installed on the device connected to the Internet (Windows, Mac, Linux or a mobile device). By doing this you will get a faster and more stable connection, however, it will be limited only on the server level.

Shadowsocks vs. Proxy

A Proxy server is a software running on a computer which acts like a connection between your computer or device and the Internet. This server makes requests in your name to the websites and services you want to access. It’s a simple solution, however, it doesn’t always help, especially when it comes to bypassing more advanced firewalls.

Different to basic Proxy servers, Shadowsocks is designed to be imperceptible from other traffic running through your device. This way it can avoid third-party monitoring and disguise itself as a normal connection. Additionally, the data going through Shadowsocks is encrypted for additional security and privacy. It’s a much more effective tool for the pickiest users.

Shadowsocks vs. VPN

Shadowsocks was originally created to bypass the Great Firewall of China and can successfully deliver this. Besides, it’s great for reaching any kind of government censorship or Geo-blocked content. It’s the closest similarity that it has when compared to a VPN provider. One of the biggest advantages is its easy setup and simple technology, perfect to access blocked content. You can choose which part of your traffic is run through the servers, and which isn’t. This feature allows you to access Geo-blocked content from outside your country, by also accessing all the content available only in your country.

However, Shadowsocks does not offer the main thing that a VPN does – anonymity. And, instead of encrypting all of your traffic, it moves around disguised as HTTPS traffic, making it almost impossible to detect and block. Nevertheless, it can serve as a decent alternative to a VPN if your threat model is your Internet Service Provider. But it's only as 'anonymous' as your remote endpoint.

Comparing these two just leads to a conclusion that they both have pros and cons. Therefore if you are searching for something that will unblock restricted content Shadowsocks can be a great solution. If you want privacy and anonymity, besides unblocking content, VPN is a much better option in the long run.