For the first time in tech history, an online browser is offering a built-in, free, virtual private network (VPN).
Opera announced the new addition to its browser on Wednesday. The VPN feature is currently only available in a developer version of the Opera browser for testing, but it will be implemented into the main version in a few weeks.
The introduction of a VPN service for Opera follows another addition to the browser last month, when a native ad-blocking feature was added.
"Bringing this important privacy improvement marks another step in building a browser that matches up to people's expectations in 2016," the company said in a Thursday press release.
Typically, VPNs allow users to appear as if they are browsing the internet from another location with another Internet Protocol address, a unique set of numbers that identifies which computer is accessing a network.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Surveillance Self-Defense project offers an example of how VPNs protect users:
When you use a VPN, all of your computer's Internet communications is packaged together, encrypted and then relayed to this other organization, where it is decrypted, unpacked, and then sent on to its destination. To the organization's network, or any other computer on the wider Internet, it looks like your computer's request is coming from inside the organization, not from your location.
The end result is increased anonymity and security while browsing. Previously, the cost was that it took a little knowledge, some legwork, and some money to set up an effective VPN service.
Opera's new built-in service streamlines that process.
Using a VPN will no longer require third-party software installations or searching through various services. It should boil down to clicking a few buttons to activate the service while on the Opera browser.
Once activated, the service will offer the options to select a virtual IP address from United States, Canada, or Germany (initially) and provide 256-bit encryption to browsing, as PC World reported.
Most importantly for some, the service will also be free and unlimited. Other VPNs charge on a subscription model or require payment for use of data accessed through the VPN. SurfEasy, for example, a Canadian VPN provider that Opera bought in 2015, charges about $10 per month for its unlimited service, depending on your platform and browser.
In all, the service has the potential to appeal to a large audience. About 1 in 4 internet users have tried, or are currently using, VPNs, according to a Global Web Index trend report cited in Opera's press release. Of those, 68 percent used VPNs for entertainment purposes or anonymity.
In countries that heavily censor or restrict internet access, VPNs can offer the chance to access the internet from an IP address in a less restrictive country. A 2010 report from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society found that of the 11 most common circumvention tools used in countries that "engage in substantial filtering" of the internet, one was a VPN service.
The service can also be used by businesses to securely provide access to some equipment, like printers, according to the EFF, or to securely access information or data over public WiFi.
Opera has said that the new native VPN service and ad-blocking feature are two parts of an ongoing plan to refocus on innovating desktop browsers.
"In January, we were reviewing our product plans, and we realized that people need new features in order to browse the web efficiently in 2016," the company wrote on Wednesday.