VPNs are powerful tools to help avoid surveillance or censorship. Outline, by Jigsaw, a project of Google/Alphabet, is open source software to host your own VPN and share access with your community without risking that a service provider could violate your privacy. With some technical skill and a reasonable monthly cost, Outline is a powerful circumvention system for civic and political groups or rights organizers.
Outline is recommended for individuals or organizations focused on rights or democracy advocacy who want a VPN that is less likely to be blocked by a hostile regime, or who are concerned about avoiding VPN providers leaking or monetizing their browsing data. These organizations should have access to someone who can provide a higher level of technical support to configure the Outline server or solve problems as they occur, though day-to-day management is easy. While Outline is free, organizations also need to be able to pay a monthly fee of $5-20 to the server hosting provider, such as Digital Ocean or Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Surveillance and censorship are global threats to the fundamental right of access to information. Whether you are concerned about unfriendly governments, or hackers, or snooping internet service providers, a virtual private network, or VPN, can ensure privacy and access. Commercial VPNs come with a significant problem: the provider can track your internet browsing themselves, and many will monetize your data. There have even been cases of authoritarian governments setting up free commercial VPNs as traps for activists. Popular VPN services come with another problem: the more people are using it, the more likely a repressive regime will find and block it.
One solution: run your own VPN. That’s what Outline makes possible. Outline is a basic VPN provider and client that runs on a server that you manage. By running your own VPN, no other company or individual can easily track your internet traffic, and the low profile makes it unlikely that your personal VPN is blocked. In addition, it is possible to stop and re-create VPN servers as needed to avoid notice.
Outline is not for everyone, as there is some technical ability required and there are costs for hosting. Even with a trusted VPN and adequate technical support, it's important to follow other essential cybersecurity best practices, including those outlined in the Cybersecurity Handbooks for Civil Society Organizations, Political Parties or Parliaments.
The Outline client for your phone or computer and Outline Manager software are free, but hosting your own server will come with costs. Using the Outline Manager to create a VPN server on hosting provider DigitalOcean is easy, and it will cost approximately $5 per month for hosting. If you and those you have shared your Outline server with are making heavy use of it, you can incur additional cost for bandwidth overages.
The Outline client (available on iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, and Mac) is very easy to install and connect to an existing server.
Installation of an Outline server is more complicated, but the Outline docs are quite clear and easy to follow. Outline has a one-click installer for the Digital Ocean hosting platform, which can be created without any technical expertise. Documentation for server deployment with other hosting providers is clear and users with some familiarity with a command line will be able to install the Outline VPN without much difficulty.
There is a contact form available to message the team behind the Outline system, but no formal support.
The Outline client apps should be updated as any other software when new versions are released. The Outline Server is designed with automatic systems to run updates on a regular basis without intervention.
The base operating system and applications for your server should be updated as usual.
Whoever is managing the Outline server theoretically has access to see what sites on the internet VPN users are connecting to. Outline does nothing to provide these capabilities, and logs no information, but the Outline Server administrator could see this data. It is also theoretically possible for the server hosting company – eg, Digital Ocean or AWS – to reverse engineer your connection to track your internet activity, but that is also quite unlikely.