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Opera browser bakes in free VPN

Opera Software today released a developer preview of its namesake browser that includes a full-featured VPN (virtual private network) client and free access to the service.

"We are the first major browser maker to integrate an unlimited and free VPN or virtual private network," boasted Krystian Kolondra, Opera's head of engineering, in a Thursday post to a company blog.

Although VPNs are most commonly used by corporate workers to access company data when they're outside their firm's network perimeter, Opera stressed the anonymous browsing they can provide.

Opera's baked-in VPN will let users access sites blocked in their countries, or by their employers or schools. It will also anonymize the user -- the VPN disguises the actual IP address of the user -- by making it appear that the browser originated elsewhere. In a public setting, such as a coffee shop's Wi-Fi network, a VPN also provides a secure "tunnel" to the destination, preventing theft of credentials and personal information like passwords.

Opera's VPN is likely based on the network of Toronto-based SurfEasy, which the Norwegian browser maker acquired last month. SurfEasy currently offers VPN subscriptions, including a plan that costs $6.49 per month when paid annually. Opera users will, in effect, be able to use a VPN without having to pay subscription fees like SurfEasy's.

The VPN addition came on the heels of the March debut of an integrated ad blocker in the developer preview of Opera.

Kolondra argued that features like the ad blocker and VPN are what today's customers want. "We realized that people need new features in order to browse the web efficiently in 2016," Kolondra said. "It also became apparent to us that what people need are not the same features that were relevant for their browsers 10 years ago."

Computerworld downloaded and installed the Mac version of Opera's preview, enabled the VPN, and successfully browsed to numerous websites. Some, however, took a very long time to load, at least on the first instance.

The inclusion of a VPN could also be set in the context of Opera's sale to a group of Chinese companies, including Beijing Kunlun Tech, a mobile game maker, and Qihoo, known for its search and anti-malware business in the People's Republic of China. That deal was urged on shareholders by Opera Software's board of directors in February. After several postponements of the deadline for a shareholder vote, a new date of May 24 was set last week. Interestingly, Opera's chief financial officer, Erik Harrell, resigned last week, and left the company immediately.

Chinese users have often tried to circumvent their country's blocking efforts using VPNs, although the Communist Party-controlled government has cracked down on the technology using both official directives and technical means.

While the VPN can now be accessed only from within the latest Opera developer build on Windows, OS X and Linux, Kolondra said that the tool and service would reach the production-grade browser in a "few weeks."

Opera's free VPN service can be switched on from the browser's options panel. A small button will appear to the left of the address bar when VPN is enabled.

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