AOL aims to secure surfing with new Netscape browser

America Online (AOL) on Feb. 17 plans to release the first public test version of a new Netscape browser that is designed to protect users from scams and malicious code while surfing the Web.

With the release, AOL is taking aim at Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser, which has been the subject of many security vulnerabilities. Also, AOL is looking to piggyback on the popularity of Firefox, the open source Web browser that was released in November and has since been downloaded nearly 22 million times.

Using a list of known malicious Web sites, the new Netscape 8 browser will automatically adjust security settings to protect the user. A blacklist of Web sites will be stored on the user's PC and updated frequently. AOL is currently in negotiations with various security companies to supply the information, sources close to AOL said.

While browsing the Web, users will be alerted with a red check mark in the browser tab to sites known to be part of a phishing scam or that distribute spyware or other malicious code. Browser technologies such as JavaScript, cookies and ActiveX will be disabled.

Phishing scams are a prevalent type of online attack that typically combine spam e-mail messages and Web pages that look like legitimate e-commerce sites to steal sensitive information such as user names, passwords and credit card numbers.

Netscape 8 will identify sites known to be trusted, such as banks, online services and online stores, with a green check mark. These sites by default will be displayed using the IE rendering engine, with most browser technologies enabled to maximize compatibility. The trusted sites list will come from organizations such as Truste, sources said.

Unknown sites will be coded yellow. Users can change settings on a per-site basis through a menu that is easily accessible from the browser tab.

Netscape 8 is based on Firefox, but also supports the IE browser engine. AOL released a preview version of the browser to a select group of testers in late November. The Netscape browser doesn't include the IE engine, but uses the engine that is part of Windows. As such, the Netscape 8 browser only works on Windows computers.

IE is part of Windows and is used by most Web users. Many Web sites have been designed specifically to work with the Microsoft browser and may not work correctly in browsers using other engines, including the Gecko engine in Firefox. For example, movie site Movielink.com and tax Web site HRBlock.com don't work well in Firefox.

"One of the big complaints about Internet Explorer has been security," said one person involved with Netscape 8 development who asked not to be named. "We think that is real, but we also think that a lot of the browser technologies can be used for good things as well."

In addition to the security features, the Netscape 8 beta includes enhanced support for RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, also found in Firefox, and allows users to set multiple homepages that will display in different browser-tabs.

Netscape and Firefox are not the only browsers seeking to capitalize on IE's bad security reputation. Deepnet Technologies Ltd. of the U.K., for example, offers a free browser based on IE, but with additional features, including one designed to protect against phishing scams. Apart from gathering known phishing sites from affiliates and antiphishing Web sites, the Deepnet browser also has a built-in phishing report facility that Netscape 8 will lack.

Netscape was the most popular browser in the early years of the Web. AOL is now breathing new life into the Netscape browser, which was marginalized after Microsoft introduced IE in the mid-1990s. The final version of Netscape 8 is due out in the second quarter and will be backed by some marketing efforts from AOL, according to sources familiar with the company's plan.

(Johan Bostrom in Boston contributed to this report.)

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Joris Evers

IDG News Service
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