Tool lets users browse the Web anonymously
By Tom Mainelli
(IDG) -- It just got a little easier to stay anonymous when surfing the Web.
Anonymizer.com has offered anonymous surfing services for years, but it has required you to start your Web browsing at the site. Monday the company released a plug-in that lets Microsoft Explorer users toggle their privacy protection on and off, without having to detour to the Anonymizer site first.
The new tool, dubbed the Privacy Button, works with IE 5.0 and later versions of the Windows version of Microsoft's browser. It is available as a free download at Anonymizer.com, says Lance Cottrell, the company's president. A Macintosh version of the button is coming soon, but the company has no plans for a Netscape version because that browser's technology makes it impossible, he says.
The new tool doesn't change the way the service works, it just makes it easier to access and should encourage people to use it more, Cottrell says. Early response to the tool has been very strong, he says. The company has already seen an increase in how often its existing customer base of 350,000 people uses the service. "It makes it a real no-brainer," he says.
Browsing on the Sly
By switching on the Anonymizer privacy button, or going through the Web site, you hide your identity from nosy Web sites, Cottrell says. Instead of going directly to a Web site, which might collect your information and track your movements, you go first through the Anonymizer service's server.
So, when you request data from a site, the Anonymizer requests it for you, filters out the nosy stuff, then sends it on to you. Because the data takes an extra leg on its journey, the service can slow down browsing slightly. Most people will notice, but they don't mind, he says. They're more worried about protecting their information.
"Even browsing at an online bookstore you're giving up your data," he says. "Plus, people are worried about identity theft."
Free Versus Paid
Regardless of whether you use the Privacy button or go through the Web site itself, Anonymizer offers two levels of service: free and paid. The free service is intended as a trial, Cottrell says. It offers basic safe browsing but blocks out random sites and doesn't offer extra features.
For $15 every three months, or $50 annually, you get the full service. In addition to the basic services, you get URL encryption to prevent tracking by your Internet service provider or boss, safe cookies that let you accept cookies without being tracked, and advertisement-blocking.
Anonymizer isn't the only company to offer safe-browsing software or services. Others include SafeWeband Zero-Knowledge Systems. But Cottrell claims Anonymizer's new tool makes its service the only one accessible purely through your browser.
He also claims few, if any, people are using Anonymizer's services to do bad things themselves.
"We've had very little trouble with people misusing this service. You can't hack through us, and you can't abuse others through us," he says.
In fact, the company has established good relationships with law enforcement agencies, he says. That's because the service also lets cops check out potentially illegal sites without giving away their identities, too, he says.
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