Mozilla is publicly beta-testing its own browser-based VPN-like service, and if you're a U.S. resident, you can get in on the action.
The service, officially called the Firefox Private Network, is free to use (for now) to anyone based in the United States with a Firefox account and the desktop Firefox browser (Windows, Mac or Linux). To try it out, go to https://private-network.firefox.com/ and install the browser extension.
The Firefox Private Network is not a true VPN, and to its credit, Firefox doesn't call it one. The service will encrypt only the web traffic handled by the Firefox browser on your desktop. Unlike true VPN services, it won't secure the data handled by other internet-facing applications such as email clients, Spotify or online games.
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Nor will the service let you watch streaming video from overseas, as it doesn't let you choose from which country to appear to be connecting to online services. We logged onto Netflix while connected the Firefox Private Network, but got just the regular old U.S. version of the streaming service.
(Opera's similar "browser VPN" does let you choose among three different continents, and Netflix streaming from overseas worked on Opera the last time we checked a few months ago.)
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But the Firefox Private Network will still be immensely useful when your laptop is using an open Wi-Fi network in a public place, such as in a coffeeshop or an airport waiting lounge.
If you're connecting to a website that doesn't use HTTPS secure connections, the Firefox Private Network will make it impossible for other users on the same Wi-Fi network to see what you're doing. The service also disguises your IP address, which makes it harder for web trackers to work.
It's not clear how long the beta-test will last, or whether the Firefox Private Network will always be free. Mozilla's press release mentions "several months" in order for beta testers to "give us much-needed feedback to explore technical and possible pricing options." Nor is there any word on when and if mobile devices will be included.