Internet censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. Finding the best VPN can be quite tricky as an expat in China. When it comes to commercial VPN providers, you always have to deal with unexpected downtimes and connectivity issues.
However, it’s not a big deal for people like me, who can set up their own VPN/proxy servers without relying on service providers. But, how about others?
Meet Outline, a free and open-source tool that deploys Shadowsocks servers on multiple cloud service providers. Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) Outline is the best DIY approach I’ve ever seen when it comes to implementing self-managed VPN or proxy servers.
Even though Jigsaw claims Outline is “built for news organizations,” I feel this platform is ideal for expats in China with little to no knowledge about how VPNs or proxy servers work.
Outline powers your own DIY “VPN” via Shadowsocks, an open source SOCKS5 proxy which, according to their official site, is designed to protect your internet traffic. I hope they’ll switch to ShadowsocksR at some point.
Technically, Outline is not a true VPN but a proxy server manager.
Keep in mind that https://getoutline.org/ is blocked in China. But, you can download the outline manager from Github. The client app for iOS is available on Appstore (I’m sure it won’t be available on mainland China store). Anyway, you still can find IPAs for Apple and files for supported operations systems here.
Major features of Outline:
Let’s take a look at the main features of Outline by Jigsaw.
The Outline Manager
A kickass manager app that lets you set up your own Shadowsocks servers via DigitalOcean, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and more.
The Outline Client
Built for Android, Windows, Chrome OS, iOS, MacOS, and Linux. Just download the Outline app, add the access key and click the big “connect” button.
Possibility Of Streaming Netflix
It doesn’t work if you’re setting up a proxy server via DigitalOcean. I’ve tested proxy servers based on AWS to stream Netflix before (not via Outline). Few instances in US regions lets you stream Netflix without any error. Enable TCP BBR congestion control to make things smoother.
Use Outline client to connect other SS servers
Already own a Shadowsocks server? You could use the Outline client app and connect to it.
It depends on your server location and its specifications.
Security & Privacy
Outline gives you control over your privacy by letting you operate your own server and Outline claims they never log your web traffic (but Cloud provider does). Strong encryption (Shadowsocks) helps keep your communications private.
Setting Up A Proxy Server On Outline
With the Outline Manager application, you can create a server and share access with unlimited users. Let’s see how we can set up everything.
1. Download & Install Outline Manager
The process is straight-forward. Since https://getoutline.org/ is blocked in China, visit this link to download the Outline manager from GitHub. The manager app is available for Windows, Linux, and MacOS.
2. Choose A Cloud Server & Set Up
https://cloud.digitalocean.com and https://signin.aws.amazon.com are accessible from China. You won’t be able to access Google Cloud Platform from the mainland.
It’s recommended to register an account with the Cloud provider of your choice before connecting it with the Outline manager. As you can see in the screenshot; DigitalOcean is partnered with Outline. So, setting up a proxy server powered by DigitalOcean would be the best approach.
Bonus: You can connect Outline with your existing cloud provider also.
3. Use The Access Key To Connect
Once you finish the setup process, the Outline manager will generate a token (access key).
Now, download and install the client app. Use the Access Key (SIP002 URI Scheme) on the client app, and tap/click connect.
Cons of Outline:
- Bandwidth limitations according to the cloud provider.
- Your cloud provider may or may not store log and other traces.
- Netflix streaming issue. I feel it can be resolved if you’re using AWS.
- There’s a chance the Great Firewall of China may block Outline’s Shadowsocks protocol.
They should either switch to SSR or something more complex /dynamic/secure in near future.Check Vini Fortuna‘s response to this thread. He’s the engineering manager at Google’s @Jigsaw in NY.
- No mirror sites (yet) for mainland China users. GitHub can be slow at times. We definitely need a local mirror site or download mirrors to grab the releases from Outline.
- You won’t like it if you’re used to the commercial VPNs. The outline is simple and pretty much relies on a minimal and limited environment. For the same amount, you might be able to access 10 to 15 servers of a Shadowsocks service provider like SocketPro.
Overall, I’m quite happy with what they’re doing. I highly encourage the readers of this blog post to test Outline at least once instead of relying on a VPN service provider all the time. Outline makes it easier for anyone to set up a proxy server and access restricted content.
More than sixty Internet regulations have been made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government. I believe Outline is a great initiative that supports freedom of speech by helping anyone anywhere in the World to break the barriers without relying on a third party VPN provider.
Thank you, Jigsaw (Google)!